I hope you will pop over and read the latest to my column on Drunken Boat. It is about Vincent van Gogh and his many mental and physical diagnoses. I think you will find it interesting.
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I have written many times about how people love the sensational side of mental illness – straitjackets, lobotomies, people screaming, asylums, etc. It is easy to point out the sensational side of severe mental illness, but what about other types of mental illness (or not-wellness) that we are only starting to see, and still don’t understand? What about the popularity of shows like Hoarders, or My Strange Addiction? It is as if we love to be voyeurs peeking into the lives of people with mental health issues, and the more bizarre the symptoms, the higher the ratings.
I think this trend of putting people’s illnesses on display for others to be entertained by is disturbing. We are treating mental illness like the old time freak shows at the circus that people bought a ticket to, and attend while never considering that the people who are the “freaks” are real live people, with intelligence, feelings, and dreams. These people who are on our televisions nightly are struggling with real issues that have taken over their lives.
While people are eating their popcorn and drinking their beers or sodas and watching these shows with curiosity, disgust, or possibly glee, the subjects of these shows are drowning in the symptoms of illnesses they can’t begin to manage.
I understand that people agree to go on these shows, and that no one forces them to, but the lure of fifteen minutes of fame and a paycheck are too much for most Americans to reject. I feel like we are preying on the vulnerable, or those people who would literally do anything for attention.
Two days ago I read about this 35- year-old man, Toby Sheldon, who spent over $100,000 on plastic surgery to look like the pop star, Justin Bieber. Toby Sheldon was on two reality TV shows, Botched and My Strange Addiction.
He was found dead in a hotel room a few days ago. The cause of death hasn’t been released yet, but there were drugs in his room, and I won’t be at all surprised if his death is ruled an overdose or a suicide (possibly the same thing).
Obviously, this man was not well. A person who is secure inside their own skin doesn’t pay huge amounts of money to look like someone else. Toby even admitted that he was addicted to plastic surgery. An addiction to changing your appearance is a symptom of a much bigger underlying problem.
Why would we pay this man, follow him around with cameras, and broadcast the symptoms of an illness in order to entertain?
Do we lack empathy? Do we lack compassion? Do we lack the ability to reach out to one another and do the right thing? Does watching someone worse off than ourselves make us feel better in some way?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but as someone who could have easily been “fascinating” to watch while psychotic, I find this circus-like atmosphere inhumane.
Will we sell our hearts to be entertained? And if we will, what price do we pay?