In my abnormal psychology class, a classmate suggested, in response to statistics that rates of depression fall in middle adulthood, that people with depression “grow out of it”. Before I could rip into this ignorant excuse for a human being like a starving zombie, my professor said something that stays with me to this day.
“It may look like that,” she said, “but in reality, a lot of young people diagnosed with depression simply don’t make it to adulthood.”
I wish I could say that I didn’t believe her, but the scars on my stomach lining tell a different story.
The fact that I never met my uncle tells an even darker one.
It is a different world than the one my uncle lived in. To be mentally ill now is a paradox. More and more people have become aware of the stigmas and falsehoods surrounding mental illness. Campaigns like Bell’s “Let’s Talk” have brought mental illness awareness to the television sets of millions. High-profile people being honest about their illnesses have led many people to greater understanding. Academics are dissecting the affects media has on perception of the mentally ill.
I’m not saying that this isn’t great.
But now there’s another problem.
A lot of the academic work surrounding the portrayal of mental illness completely ignores the experiences of the real mentally ill.
I’ve been blogging about psychology and the media, specifically literature, for a long time. Only one of the articles I’ve encountered acknowledges studies where mentally ill people were directly asked about how portrayals of their disorder in television and films affected their daily life. Others simply made generalizations about how mentally ill people felt victimized by these portrayals, and how the characterization of mental illness in the media made them afraid to seek help.
No, these media portrayals aren’t the problem. Not all of it. But I doubt these academics will listen to what I have to say.
The core issue at both media portrayals and these foolhardy academics is that these people are not letting the mentally ill speak for themselves. They are not letting us tell our own stories of victimization, of frustration, or, indeed, of hope. The issue is that, perhaps because of our disordered status, they assume that we are in no position to do it. That we don’t know how. “Oh, the poor oppressed mentally ill!” they seem to say, “we must tell their stories, take these vial media pundits to task! Oh, we are truly selfless, speaking for the voiceless!”
With all due respect, shut up.
Just shut up.
All of this reminds me of critiques of the “white savior” archetype: the Caucasian knight who rushes in and solves the problems of racism for the poor oppressed coloured folks. Except this time, it is the “Neurotypical savior”. The mentally ill, for the first time in many centuries, aren’t voiceless. We can tell our own stories. We can point to where society has failed us, where the media has made us into monsters. We can slay our own dragons.
For instance, a children’s film that these articles cited often was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. In the film, Belle and her father Maurice are labelled mentally ill by the townspeople. At one point, the townspeople attempt to force Maurice to be taken to a “Looney Bin”. Articles that mentioned this said that this reinforced harmful stereotypes. But, if one looks closer, this is not the case. It is the townspeople, not Maurice, that are cast as the villains for these actions. This sends the message that treating people like this is wrong. That’s a good thing. The lyrics from the Broadway version take this further:
“We don’t like
What we don’t understand
In fact it scares us”
These lyrics are from the mob song, where the townspeople rush off to kill the Beast, who the audience knows is a kind being, based on the suggestion of one person. They are being portrayed as the bad guys. The “mentally ill” characters aren’t.
Here’s my favourite example. These academics point out adolescent are listen to music with themes of mental illness, framing it in such a way that this music is a problem. Your tax dollars at work, truly. Most mental illnesses manifest in adolescence, a fact that anyone with access to google can find out. Perhaps these young people are listening to music that makes them feel less alone. This issue frustrates me as a poet. What was suggested was that the fact that artists are making music about mental illness is the problem. Pardon me, but artists relate with their inner world through their art, and inner worlds often contain hints of mental illness. Should artists be forbidden from making music about their inner demons because an adolescent might learn that suicide and psychosis *gasp* exist? Should artists be regulated to making safe music for everyone, for “normal” people to enjoy? Should the mentally ill be forbidden from telling their own stories, because it makes people uncomfortable that kids might be listening, and it might “give them the wrong idea”?
Pull your head out of your ass. This attitude is just as harmful and damaging as only showing mentally ill people as serial killers. It is saying that, because our experiences differ from the norm, that they must be kept out of the public eye, away from children. It is saying that we are different, and therefore bad.
It is saying we don’t get to tell our stories. Our “neurotypical saviours” do.
So I’m writing this.
This blog tells my story of mental illness. It’s not glamourous, it’s not academic and it sure as hell isn’t easy. But it’s my story, and I’ll be damned if anyone else tells it.
I can’t speak for all mentally ill people. But someone should start speaking for the dead.
Post written in memoriam for Robin Williams, Sylvia Plath and Douglas Mills.
Anderson, M. (2003). ‘One flew over the psychiatric unit’: Mental illness and the media. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 10(3), 297.
Klin, A., & Lemish, D. (2008). Mental disorders stigma in the media: Review of studies on production, content, and influences. Journal of Health Communication, 13(5), 434-449. doi:10.1080/10810730802198813
Lawson, A., & Fouts, G. (2004). Mental illness in Disney animated films. Canadian Journal Of Psychiatry. Revue Canadienne De Psychiatrie, 49(5), 310-314.
Stuart, H. (2006). Media portrayal of mental illness and its treatments: What effect does it have on people with mental illness? CNS Drugs, 20(2), 99-99. doi:10.2165/00023210-200620020-00002
Wahl, Otto. (2003). Depictions of Mental Illness in Children’s Media. Journal of Mental Health, 12(3), 249-258.
Mob song: lyrics and