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Tag Archives: Mental Illness

Awareness Awareness

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There is a walk, run, dance, bracelet, and color to raise awareness for just about any and everything. Diseases, syndromes, and situations have their own ribbons, websites and events. “Awareness” is the word. Though to be excruciatingly precise it’s not the best word to use. There are very few of us who are not “aware” of cancer, domestic violence, suicide, autoimmune diseases, etc. A more apt word would probably be “Attention”. The goal of these public relations campaigns is to draw attention to the subject matter. Often it is the case that where there is attention paid money follows. And that is good.

What all this attention has created of course is a culture of extroversion that might not be reflective of the culture at large. People who perhaps feel inclined to experience their illness, hardship or loss in relative privacy can feel pressured to come out. There is almost a forced gaiety surrounding some illnesses. Female reproductive cancers are assigned a color and a cloak of sisterhood that can feel demanding to an introvert. Of course even forced gaiety is better than the quiet shame of yesteryear. With the pink feather boas comes an abundance of information and support.

It’s not clear if any awareness has an impact on the individual. Do people seek detection and treatment at a significantly higher rate now? Does any of that result in longer healthier lives? I don’t know. When a newsreader has a screening on national television does it change the disease statistics? Certainly when a colonoscopy is broadcast it makes an impact on the national discussion. And that is good. Does being pressured (by producers) to have a mammogram on air change anything? Are there any women who need to be told what a mammogram is? Does anyone still discuss breast cancer in hushed tones? And when that broadcasted mammogram results in a woman’s worst fear, does it help or hurt? (For the record; has there ever been a man being tested for anything on air?) That the newsreader’s life has most likely been prolonged is a wonderful thing. But does it have a significant impact on the people who witness it?

Eradicating shame and fear is always a worthwhile pursuit. There are many diseases, particularly those of the mind, which could use some bracelet wearing awareness. Expanding our understanding of the personal challenges around us increases our humanity. However part of that understanding should be an appreciation that not everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame, let alone for their colon. And not everyone wants to wear pink and belong to a disease sorority. Extroversion (or attention/awareness) is no more laudable than introversion. Being ill, or surviving a loved one’s suicide or any other personal horror is just that: personal. In a world of walkathons and editorial confessions, shouting may feel like the only means to support or care. Somewhere between the shame and secrecy of the past and the exhibitionism of the present is a place for everyone.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Well-Being

 

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Hoarders

firehouse

Reality television is at best a cracked lens on society. The percentage of toddlers wearing hairpieces, spray tans, dentures, and artificial nails is in actuality quite small. Most women don’t call themselves housewives, implant faces and bodies beyond recognition and parent so abysmally. Whether the people who participate in these shows are mentally healthy or not is an interesting question. Voguing for a camera (and hoping to land fame, fortune and book deals) is not currently classified as a mental illness. For the official-certified-it’s listed in the DSM-V, display of mental illness you need to turn to the addiction sub-genre of reality show.

That there is an audience at all to watch people struggle with a mental illness is itself disturbing. But evidently there is, and the proof is the shows focusing on obesity, drug and alcohol addiction and hoarding. You’ll note that there are no shows about mental illness that have a less quantifiable or compelling visual behavior. There’s yet to be a “Watch The Narcissist” show, and to be fair it’s probably due to the redundancy factor. There’ll never be a “Depressed Divas” show as depressed people are never entertaining. A “BiPolar Bonanza” would demand a far too attentive director and shooting schedule (dammit his mood just shifted, where is the camera!) We, the audience, are not very interested in mental illness per se, what we like is wacky behavior. And if that behavior stems from a syndrome all the better. We love nothing more than hearing from a person with questionable credentials (‘therapist’ needs a modifier to mean anything) spout psychobabble about the behavior. The hoarding shows center around this very phenomenon. We see a ‘therapist’ gently talking the hoarder into parting with the petrified pet. In the next scene she actively listens to distraught and frustrated family members and explains ‘the process’ to them. We sit in our over-accessorized homes, eating chips and dip out of a chip and dip bowl, as we wear our ‘tv watching’ outfit and snort over the wasteful accumulation. “That’s f*&^ed up” we say as we accidentally tip over the tower of DVDs.

This interest in wacky behavior doesn’t just guide free cable programming decisions. It also seems to guide political policy and expenditure. There are currently 85 communities across this country that consider hoarding to be a serious public health hazard. Hoarding, of course is not necessarily a health hazard. No one has been physically harmed by a Madame Alexander doll or Thomas Kinkade collection. Possibly a more apt description for the kind of behavior with which the authorities are concerned is ‘filth’. There’s a method that’s been used since the dawn of filth for such scenarios; it’s called condemning. There are no soft-spoken ‘therapists’ or understanding fire chiefs necessary. If a home poses a genuine risk to the public, shut it down. Anything else is utterly disingenuous. Hoarding and living in filthy squalor is only the presenting behavior. There’s a reason people engage in barricade building. Convincing someone to part with a few carcasses and some urine soaked newspaper may make the helpers feel better, but dollars to dozens and dozens of donuts, that home is going to fill the hell up again. And why shouldn’t it?! What business is it of anyone’s how someone else chooses to live? This is when someone pipes up and says “It’s a public heath issue”. Is it? Not always. If the person lives rurally it’s not. If it really and truly is then shut it down. But wait, what’s to become of the hoarder? Well, if we really believe that the person is a danger to themselves and others (and if they’re not we have no business bothering them) than they need to live in a protected environment.

That homes are being cleaned out, very slowly and often at taxpayer expense, by community officials is troubling. On its surface it appears that we care about our most fragile neighbors. If that is even remotely true why aren’t the same resources being used to remodel shantytowns? Surely people living in doorways, under bridges and in tunnels are also worthy of a clean dwelling. It stands to reason that people living on the street, presumably without access to health care also pose a public health hazard. It is always better to err on the side of helping, but it is the responsibility of the strong to be clear about who exactly they are helping and why. Wrapping ourselves in rhetoric to impinge on someone’s autonomy is not helping anyone but ourselves.

 

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Crime Of The Mind

Edgar Allan Poe

In New York City a man has been convicted of conspiring to kidnap and could be sentenced to life imprisonment. He did not in fact kidnap or hurt anyone, but did type extensively about his desire to do so. It is conceivable that this 28-year old man could spend the rest of his life in prison for having creepy thoughts. This in a land in which people who’ve been convicted of actual crimes serve their time and are released. What in the world does it mean for thoughts to be illegal?

Was the fact that this man a N.Y. police officer too emotionally charged for the jury? Was the jury swayed by the graphic nature of the defendant’s writing? Was the fact that the writing occurred in cyberspace perceived as more threatening than a handwritten journal? Was it that the defendant engaged with other typists in these fantastical plans? Something must have clouded the jury’s vision to render such a verdict. Is there reason to be concerned about the judgement of this police officer? Absolutely, but that’s a personnel issue, no? Were the messages so convincing that the jury was concerned about imminent danger? Perhaps, but that is why probation, monitoring and court mandated treatment were invented.

By equating thought with action we set a dangerous precedent. What does this mean for all crime writers for example? What does it mean for anyone who’s ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)? And what of those who engage with the dangerous writing? Are book clubs or theatre audiences aiding and abetting these dark thinkers? While no one will ever confuse Sweeney Todd with the contents of a chat room, the overarching premise is the same. The fact that the chatting, posting, emailing and texting wasn’t particularly well written or the least bit musically engaging doesn’t mean it wasn’t an exercise in creative writing. Creative writing by a man of questionable mental health of course.

But questionable mental health is not a crime. Do we want people with questionable mental health to be carrying a gun and be charged with protecting people? No. Do we want real and meaningful treatment for those who are not entirely well and who harbor violent thoughts? Without a doubt. Imprisoning (for any length of time) because of mentally illness is a black eye for us all. It is an ugly bruise of a reminder of how inept and misguided we are in matters of mental health.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Well-Being

 

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Stopping The Madness

trucks

When real news occurs technology and 24-hour access is a blessing. By patching together information from responsible radio sources, social chatter, and television visuals, we are able to piece together a reliable narrative. Our data gathering is confirmed and/or tweaked by the next morning’s newspaper. But when there is no more news, when we know what there is to know, the coverage still continues. The cameras and the microphone-wielding reporters scramble to create news after the fact.

Mobs of coffee swilling, logo wearing news personnel pass the time texting and chatting, waiting for a passerby to descend upon. They are rewarded for their perseverance by the person who desires to be photographed/interviewed. We could spend hours working out why anyone would want to place flowers on the ground while a swarm of dozens of camera people hover over one’s head. Perhaps it’s a similar motivation to wanting to go on record with “I didn’t really know him, he seemed different.” It’s odd but it is human nature to want to be part of something bigger.

But do we gain anything from the vulgar intrusion into people’s lives and the manufacturing of ‘news?’ The real events are usually horrific enough. No one need look for more horror. Every ‘expert’ frantically grabbed for a soundbite can pontificate from the news desk. If there is still news to come out of local offices, a reporter can be there and file the report the information. On-site cameras are not needed to report medical examiner reports or investigative results. Beside the stomach-turning element to covering mourning and grief is the danger of anesthetizing the public. While we don’t want to live in a state of perpetual sorrow, we most certainly don’t want to find ourselves numb and/or nonchalant about such horrific events. What is almost unthinkable is how the non-stop coverage can actually lead to more tragedy.

We can’t begin to ever really know what goes on in someone else’s mind. But we can look for clues and make educated guesses and predictions. A person ill at ease in the world, unable to connect with other people can retreat into a very dark world. If someone feels that they will never be able to be an active participant in life can look for ways to make their mark in death. No, it is not a simple equation and it by no means suggests that all socially awkward people retreat into darkness. But people who feel part of the world and valued by others wouldn’t look for ways to enact revenge on their path to death.

While there is no way to overstate that the time is now to rid our nation of guns and take mental illness seriously, it is also time to stop the media circus. Right now there is some compromised person watching this coverage and thinking of a way to become even more famous. The fact that I’m saying it doesn’t make it true, the fact that you feel it too, does.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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The Stigma of Psychopathy

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It’s fascinating to consider how our attitudes change over time. It is almost amusing to flip through a magazine from more than 40 years ago. Advertisements, editorial content and choices speak volumes about our priorities and concerns at the time of publication. Old movies also tell us much (often in the guise of propaganda or by virtue of what’s left out of a story.) While it’s doubtful that any newlywed couple ever slept in separate twin beds it is for certain that Hollywood wanted us thinking so. A study of older cinema is illuminating in what it tells us about what people held dear and what they scorned. Some of these values are practically foreign to many of us. You might need a crib sheet to understand the subtlety of a woman scorned for working outside the home, or the degenerating effects of a broken home. You may very well need to hit the pause button to consider what exactly ‘ruined’ a woman or what a ‘deserter’ was and what it supposedly said about a person.

How intriguing that we once felt so strongly about issues that have lost their power to shock or hurt. It must be a sign of some sort of progress? Our attitudes about marriage, relationships, parenthood, working, religion, and the public versus the private world have changed drastically since married people were shown sleeping in twin beds. If they choose to be relevant, media (in all forms) must somewhat reflect the realities of the time. Slowly but surely families are depicted as the freeform drawing they often are, rather than the coloring within the lines they might have once been. The melding of the public and private means most of us now know far more than we care to about strangers. Diseases and ‘conditions’ that were once private, feared, or barely noted, are discussed in loud outdoor advertising voices. There really are no private parts anymore. Except one: the mind.

Mental illness, despite all of our progress is still quite demonized and stigmatized in our media. Certainly we can all comfortably bandy about pop-psycholoigy terms. We could probably rattle off the names of a handful of medications for depression or anxiety. Thanks to reality television we think we know what obsessive compulsive disorder is. What we know and what we’re comfortable discussing is cocktail party chatter. Any mental illness serious or complex enough to not warrant a television commercial, magazine advert, awareness campaign or walkathon is a no-go zone. Shrouding mental illness in shame in secrecy only fuels our misunderstanding yet we hold onto this attitude.

When the newsreader intones (in sotto voce) “The suspect sought counseling” we get the message: ‘Oh, he/she is crazy.’ (For the record you know what’s actually crazy? Thinking you’re not crazy.) The toxicity of this message; 1) seeking help for mental health is suspect 2) mental illness is synonymous with criminality is the very definition of stigmatization. The only thing all criminals have in common is that they committed a crime. Mental illness takes many forms and very few of them involve any violent behaviors. People with illnesses are much more likely to hurt themselves (passively or actively.)

It’s the ambiguity of mental illness that is at the core of these attitudes. The mind is confusing. It is difficult to talk about personality disorders in 60 seconds. Many mental illness can be quite complicated and often incurable. A true understanding of the subtleties and complexities is probably best left to the professionals. But we don’t need to understand something to accept it. What we need to do is rebrand mental illness. Newsreaders think nothing of loudly broadcasting starlet rehabilitation for drug addiction or eating disorders (psst: nice lady reading the teleprompter – addiction and eating disorders are mental illnesses.) We speak publicly and loudly about post-traumatic stress disorder and post-partum depression (mental illness, mental illness.) If all mental illnesses were called by their proper name(s) perhaps we could shed the shame. Words are powerful (just think of all the ones you no longer feel comfortable using.) Once mental illness is seen as diverse expansive and existing any and everywhere, we can celebrate and support treatment in a meaningful way.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2012 in Media/Marketing, Well-Being

 

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