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.