I want you to picture yourself walking out of the campus counseling center. You just had a therapy session for your depression and anxiety. You open the doors, and walk into a crowd of people. Some of them you know, others are strangers. Really, take a minute, and try and picture this.
Now, how do you feel knowing that they know you just saw a “shrink”? If you are like most people, you would feel pretty uneasy right now. For some, there’s a sense of shame or embarrassment, for others, an overwhelming feeling of uneasiness. Something they can’t quite put into words, but they can feel the anxiety in their bones.
Now, picture that same scenario, but change the therapist to a doctor, and make your depression a sprained ankle. Not quite the same reaction.
For years, the mentally ill have been one of the most neglected groups in the world. Everything, from having access to medical facilities to receiving ethical treatments, has been close to impossible. Why is it that our society, a society that prides itself on helping others (except those few Ayn Rand readers who grow up to be in the GOP), can’t seem to provide care to people without making them feel broken for getting it?
Nobody feels bad for having a heart attack. There are not support groups for victims of the Common Cold. There’s no Seasonal Allergies Anonymous. We just accept these as things that happen to us humans every now and then. They are mostly out of our control and it doesn’t reflect on our character if we suffer from them.
Why, then, is something like depression, which affects one in four adults in any given year, treated as if only the weakest, most broken people suffer from it? And that’s just depression. God forbid someone has something like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Bipolar I or II disorder. Then, a person’s entire identity is determined to revolve around what they have instead of who they are.
Some of this can be traced to how we characterize mental disorders in the media. It should come as no surprise to anyone to know that mental illness is sensationalized and capitalized at every opportunity. Think about a movie that features either a major or minor character with a mental illness. Movies like “Final Analysis,” “One Hour Photo” and shows like “Wonderland” are, at best, a terribly incorrect portrayal of mental illness. I understand that some movies strive to achieve realism in how it portrays things like depression, OCD, or schizophrenia (“The Aviator” being a particularly good example), but those are few and far between.
Even critically acclaimed movies that are expected to be a little closer to the truth have been guilty of perpetuating the negative stereotypes. In almost every example where a schizophrenic is being portrayed, they are shown as being violent and, for lack of a better term, crazy. Totally crazy. Depressed people are shown to be constantly suicidal. People with OCD can’t function without constant counting and nervous ticks. People with PTSD have violent flashbacks. Everyone is an extreme caricature of what they have. I understand that a lot of these stereotypes hold true to some extent, but it’s just not accurate to say that every person with _____ is ______. Not to mention, more than just the characters, the overall themes are often just a harmful.
I’m a huge fan of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but disregarding how it portrays the mentally ill, its overall message is that all a patient needs is a little love. Forget the mental health care system. Forget the psychologists and Nurse Ratcheds. The overarching theme of the movie is that it’s the mentally ill that are “alright,” and it’s The System that’s keeping them down. But to make things worse, there is this tendency in the media to show people with mental illness as violent, irreparable and fixable with just a little bit of love and rejection of modern health services. How is that supposed to encourage people to seek help when they need it?
I get that this doesn’t hold true for every representation of someone with some mental disorder or another. However, I think it’s important to be extremely cognizant about how we view and portray diseases of the mind, because that drastically affects what treatments our society views as acceptable or not. If we really want to be a nation that helps people in need, much like we claim to be already, we need to recognize a group of people that has taken the short end of the stick for years, and made to feel broken and ashamed for being in that group in the first place.
Justin Huft is a fourth-year psychology and social behavior and social ecology double major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.