*I wrote this back in November for The Mighty and even though they accepted it, it must have been cut because it never showed up there. I am posting it here to give it a home.
People with severe mental illnesses frequently are portrayed as dangerous killers, or they are portrayed as the harmless “fools” or “idiots” like in the Fisher King. There is one nice thing to say about Dr. Phil’s show that aired November 18th, 2016. The nicest thing I can say is that he didn’t go for either of those stereotypes that most movies, television shows and stories portray; Shelley Duvall did not come across as dangerous or a killer or the happy, go lucky “innocent.” She was, however, portrayed in a way that made light of psychotic thoughts and features during a time in her life when she is in deep need of understanding and care.
The show took the path of sensationalism and did a disservice to all those who have a mental illness. Duvall, best known for her role alongside Jack Nicholson in the Shining was obviously suffering from symptoms of a severe mental illness. I’m not a doctor, but her symptoms mirror many people (myself included) who have schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or bipolar psychosis. If I had to guess, I would say that Duvall was actively psychotic based on my experiences with the condition (I have been psychotic numerous times and her thought pattern, paranoia, etc. closely resemble what I went through).
I am disappointed and angry that McGraw didn’t take the high road and interview someone with a severe mental illness who is an advocate and could have gotten through an interview without falling into some of the most serious symptoms displayed by people with schizophrenia or other disorders. For instance, I suffer from symptoms every day but could have talked my way through an interview without disclosing any delusions, hallucinations or conspiracy theories. The same was not true of Duvall. Duvall mentioned a device implanted in her leg that causes her to worry. She also said that Robin Williams, who she acted within the movie, Popeye, was not dead (Williams committed suicide in 2014) but was “shape shifting.” And she claimed that the Sheriff of Nottingham was out to get her, and frequently mentioned people trying to hurt her in bizarre ways.
I know the things I wrote in the last few sentences seem kind of eccentric, harmless, and maybe even fun or goofy, but they are symptoms of a serious illness, and there is nothing harmless or humorous about them. If Duvall is psychotic, she may also be hearing voices (during the interview she mentioned a man that is hurting her that may very well be a voice that she hears). Hearing voices is a phenomenon that can be upbeat one moment and terrify the next; it can be extremely uncomfortable to those who experience it. At a minimum, Duvall deserves our respect, compassion and empathy and McGraw made her more of an object of sensationalized quirkiness than a woman who needs intervention, care, and long-term treatment.
Not only did the Dr. Phil show harm advocacy efforts towards giving a balanced and fair view of mental illnesses, but it may also have harmed Duvall as well. If Duvall can get medications that clear up her symptoms or at least make them manageable (knowing the difference between reality and delusions) then she may very well be embarrassed or shamed by that interview. In her vulnerable state (which should never have been made public) she may have opened herself up in ways that she normally wouldn’t have, and that could cause her further suffering.
Like all marginalized groups who suffer from popular stereotypes, mentally ill people long to be seen as we are and not as caricatures of our symptoms, sensationalistic representations of our illnesses, or in a case of extremes. For many of us, we look a lot like everyone else when we have proper treatment, but darn, that just isn’t as interesting and doesn’t sell advertising.