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March 26, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

“Psycho”; Mental Illness in Politics and Hollywood

CW: Mentions of suicide and gun violence.

There has been another mass shooting in the U.S. Need I name it, date it? Perhaps not. By the time this is published, no doubt there will have been more, but this will unfortunately remain just as relevant. When I see the notification pop up, my stomach drops. I am already anticipating the same tired old routine; the “thoughts and prayers”; the renewed calls for gun control, which inevitably go ignored; and a plethora of politicians placing the blame solely on the shoulders of mentally ill people. Of “savage sickos”*. Of people like me.

You see, I am one of those oh-so-dangerous mentally ill people that you hear about so often from the poisonous lips of America’s president; the villain in many of Hollywood’s movies. Yes, in fact I am so much of a threat that I can’t even make a phone call or order food for myself. Tissues and cups of tea beware.

Of course, this targeting of the mentally ill is neither a new phenomena, nor one unique to American politics. I could mention a number of examples, such as the programs of forced sterilization that mentally ill people were put through under the Nazi regime, or the way that patients in English lunatic asylums were treated as a form of public entertainment until the beginning of the 20th century. While the treatment of mental illnesses today is greatly at odds with these very recent historical examples, the prejudice and misinformation which have stemmed from them unfortunately remain all too common, serving to create an environment which can be incredibly damaging to mentally ill people.

Let’s talk about rhetoric; the ways and the words with which people discuss mental illness. In the news for example, it is all too common to hear words such as “psychopath”, “crazy”, and “mental” bandied around, in articles, interviews, and talk pieces. These words all carry heavily negative connotations, and while it may not seem like much, this helps to build a culture of stigma surrounding mental illness. My friends and I are either painted as dangers to society, or social dropouts who have somehow failed an unwritten test, simply because our brains — through no fault of our own — have failed to produce the right amounts of certain chemicals.

Politicians don’t help. Mentally ill people have, in recent years, become something of a political football. In the United States, we are blamed for seemingly every shooting, and all incidents of domestic terrorism. In November of 2017, Donald Trump responded to another mass shooting by claiming that “mental health is [the] problem here,” and when eight people were killed in New York by a man who drove a truck into them, he described the perpetrator as a “very sick and deranged person”.

While here in NZ our politicians may not make such blatant statements, previous governments have a shocking track record when it comes to addressing issues surrounding mental health. For the past nine years, the National-led government systemically defunded key services in the mental health sector, cutting all funding for Lifeline in 2017, as well as ignoring calls from both the public and professionals for an inquiry into state mental health services.

The belief that mentally ill people are inherently violent, antisocial, and undeserving of help is a blatant falsehood. In recent research conducted by Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University, it was found that mental illness was the root cause of only 4% of over ten thousand incidents of violence – ranging from minor crime up to mass shootings – in one calendar year. In fact, the group most likely to commit violent crimes are white males, with histories of drug abuse or bullying. Similar results have been found in studies outside of the United States, conducted in countries with comparative levels of mental illness. This strongly indicates that America’s violence problem is not, as politicians such as Trump would have us believe, a mental health problem, but rather a deeper issue within their society. No reason then to scapegoat people like me.

Yet why should we care so much about words employed by politicians on the other side of the Pacific? The issue is that, in today’s increasingly interconnected world, the events on the other side of the planet are heard and discussed just as much over here. The audience commanded by people like Trump is no longer limited to those in their own countries, but now expands to anyone who cares to tune in. As such, the way in which he and others like him discuss mental illnesses now has far more impact around the globe, thus breeding the culture of stigma which makes it so difficult for people to reach out for help.

However, politicians are far from being the only culprits. Hollywood, and indeed the film industry as a whole, is particularly good at using mental health conditions to provide the villains they need for their dramatic plot lines. A recent example of this is the film “Split”, which flagrantly misrepresents Dissociative Identity Disorder (D.I.D), in order to give the film a terrifying bad guy. The main character, Kevin, is presented as a person diagnosed with D.I.D, who is locked in a constant battle for control over his body with his twenty-something different “personalities”, which includes one called “the beast”; a persona which physically warps his appearance into something horrific, granting him superhuman strength. This ignores the complexities of D.I.D. No mental health condition can change the strength or appearance of someone, however slapping a diagnosis on it not only grants a handy explanation which patches up a number of plot holes, but it also takes the demonisation of mentally ill people to a very literal extreme. This is incredibly concerning, for it feeds into the narrative of mental illness being synonymous with violence, thus serving to further stigmatise those with mental health conditions.

Why do we as a society continue to perpetuate these negative stereotypes? Why, when in any given year one fifth of the population will experience some form of mental illness, do we still buy into these tropes of mental illness being synonymous with violence? How, despite all evidence to the contrary, can so many people still accept and espouse the belief that mental illness is somehow the fault of the person suffering? Perhaps it is a self-perpetuating cycle; I know not.

All I know is that it makes me angry. It hurts, to see myself, and my friends, painted as violent criminals. I feel terrified when I see people buying into this culture, saying that all mentally ill “psychos” should be locked up or shot to keep society safer. And above all else, it makes me furious, and deeply, unspeakably sad, when one of my closest friends tells me that they don’t feel able to seek the help that they so desperately need, because they do not want to be seen as weak. As a monster. A freak.

In a recent seminar at my hall of residence, which dealt with how to get along well with others, we were told not to talk about our negative emotions. The underlying message was never explicitly stated, but to anyone listening it was clear; these incredibly human experiences were somehow a thing of shame, a failing, which would reflect badly upon us if people knew about them. This horrified me, as teaching that sense of disgrace is a sure-fire way to stop people from seeking help. Our suicide rates here in New Zealand are disproportionately high for our population, and shame, as well as fear of judgement, are precisely why it took me three years to even think about approaching a counsellor for the first time. I hid this all from the people around me, as I was utterly terrified of being seen as some sort of sick freak, or dumb dropout just looking for sympathy. By that point I had become convinced by those very same stigmatising messages that having this condition made me a failure. To my mind, my mental illness was entirely my fault.

Let’s talk a bit more about mental illness in New Zealand. In the recent election cycle, mental illness, and mental health services, became a significant talking point, and rightly so. In the year ending June 2017, 606 New Zealanders took their own lives, the third year in a row that that figure has increased. For a country with a population as small and as interconnected as New Zealand, this is a massive number. We have the dubious honour of having the highest rate of youth suicide in the OECD,

Misrepresentation and negative stereotyping only serve to make suicide rates worse, as the demographics overrepresented in those statistics are the ones who are the least likely to reach out for help, because of the stigma attached to having a mental health condition. Thankfully, as more people, and activists such as Mike King, are beginning to speak up and strike back, more attention is being drawn to the dismal state of our public mental health services, as well as spreading the message that having a mental illness is not something to be ashamed of.

This pushback is beginning to yield results, with the new Labour-led government recently announcing a long overdue inquiry into our mental health systems. As someone who has experienced the public system first-hand, I welcome this news with open arms, for to me this indicates the start of a shift in the way that we discuss mental illness, as well as a promise of a higher standard of support for people in need. When mental illness is discussed with respect rather than derision by those at the highest levels of government, it sends the message that the 20% of the population who experience mental health issues each year are valid,  not simply “making it up for attention”, or violent people who should be locked up. Rather, we are seen as people deserving of support. When we begin to shift our rhetoric around mental illness, progress will follow.

So perhaps there is light, however faint, at the end of this long tunnel. We’re certainly better off than we were fifty years ago. As more people are beginning to speak up about their own experiences, others see that they are not a failure for having a mental illness. Our statistics surrounding suicide remain horrifying, but the conversations we have around mental health are beginning to shift in tone, at least here in New Zealand. Though we still have a long way to go, as shown by the impact of the way mental illness is discussed on the global stage, there is perhaps some reason for hope. We must start seeing mentally ill people for who they are; as humans, with lives, loves, and ambitions. These damaging stereotypes spring from centuries old fear and misunderstandings, and the only way to fix them is to challenge them head on.

* Donald Trump tweet, February 22nd, 2018


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