acitivist, advocacy, Advocate, American Horror Story, bipolar, creative nonfiction, mental health, mental illness, mentally ill, psychiatry, psychology, schizophrenia, stereotypes, stigma, televison, writing
Last night my husband and I were scrolling through Netflix, and there was a picture on one of the series that looked like a baked potato. I didn’t have my glasses on, so I couldn’t see it clearly. I asked my husband, “What is the show with the baked potato?”
“You do not want to watch that.” My husband said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“American Horror Story.” He said.
“Is it scary?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” He said as he started to flip through and read the various episodes.
When he got to season two, he read me the title of the series, Asylum.
“I want to watch that episode.” I said.
“He said I think all of season two is about an asylum.” He replied.
“I want to see how they handle the issue of mental illness. I really want to see this. Of course, if it is too scary, we will turn it off.” I said.
It is the most stereotypical program about mental illness that I have ever seen. It is so offensive, that I only watched about twenty to twenty- five minutes before I asked my husband to turn it off.
The episode starts out with a couple taking pictures at a run-down hospital for the criminally insane. The woman is reading off her smartphone details about the place and of course, the most notorious serial killer of all time had been housed there.
That was enough right there for me to know that the show was going to depict mental illness in the most horrendously offensive and derogatory way.
The next scene was a flash back in time to when the hospital was operating. A young woman reporter is visiting the hospital and is greeted by one of the patients. The patient is a woman that is short, has big teeth, doesn’t talk but nods happily (crazily) and has physical features that make her stand out as someone you would accidentally stare at on the street.
The journalist is talking to the patient, and a staff member comes out. The journalist says something like, “She meant no harm.” And the staff member replies, “She drowned her sister’s baby and cut off his ears. She is not harmless.”
The show goes on to show other patients screaming, rocking, etc. I couldn’t watch much more.
There was a point while watching it that I felt a barrier go up between me and the rest of the world. It was a barrier that was made of pain – built to protect myself.
This is how they like to portray us. I have been on a psych ward, and everyone was in street clothes watching television, walking around, making crafts, eating lunch, participating in group therapy, or on a smoke break.
I can now imagine how the Native Americans felt when they watched Western movies that constantly portrayed them as savages, or how Black Americans feel when they watch a movie and they are cast in the role as butler, or doorman, or maid.
We have come a long way in terms of racism and there are so many activists and allies lined up to call racism out where ever it shows up. The same is not true for mental illness. Even with all the mental health bloggers, all the stigma fighting groups, all the activists for the mentally ill, it is still okay for Hollywood to portray the mentally ill in any way they would like – the stereotypical way still sells and I don’t hear any outrage at the backward and harmful ways of producers, actors, directors, set designers, costume designers, and everyone else that contributes to these horrible depictions of a whole segment of our population.
I have come to the conclusion that people like the obvious, wild, serial killer, monster, head banging, screaming image of the mentally ill – they are comfortable with that. Knowing that the woman that picks up their paper while they are on vacation, or the professor that they look up to and want to be like, or the coworker who always offers to help them finish those reports is mentally ill must be uncomfortable for some people.
The obviously mentally ill can be avoided. They can be mocked and made fun of because they aren’t fully human in some people’s mind. They are “less than.” They are caricatures of real people.
Today, I have no nice ending to wrap this essay up like a bow.
I’ll leave it at this: If a whole segment of society has to put barriers up to protect themselves against popular beliefs and depictions of who they are as people, there is something inherently wrong with that society, not the people who put up barriers to retain their dignity and self-worth.