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.