Videocam shows police saving a man about to jump in the river. This bit of news flashes across my phone and it got me thinking. The mass media and Hollywood sensationalize mental illness. It happens most when they cover mass shootings to the high profile suicides and homicides. Mental illness should not be viewed for someone’s entertainment unless there is some way it engages a lesson in trying to lesson suicides or educate about symptoms. Even so, every mental illness presents itself differently in different people.
No one realized that I struggled with mental illness when I worked full-time at a newspaper on the Connecticut shoreline fifteen years ago. Not my editors nor my coworkers nor my colleagues nor my sources. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in college, when my symptoms resurfaced, there was no one to recognize what they were, least of all me. Back then, I didn’t know myself as well or how my illness manifested. Everyone loved the stories I wrote for the paper but no one could explain my behavior. One day, thinking that they were going to fire me, I walked in and quit. My resignation did not end my battle with mental illness. The right medications, therapy and some nuturing professors in graduate school saved me among other things.
Virginia Tech happened years later while I was in graduate school. I wrote an editorial for a Chicago paper condemning the shooter but recognizing that he needed help, and praising groups like Active Minds for raising awareness about mental illness among students so these types of things don’t happen again.
Then, came Sandy Hook. I watched how the media covered the carnage in that elementary school. I watched as they condemned the shooter but never really explained the mental illness behind such an act. There were explanations needed. Things left unsaid lead to misconceptions, and ultimately prejudice. I was left aghast at the relatively little coverage paid to the mental health issues of first responders on that day.
I recently watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why about a girl’s suicide and how it affects a community. As much as the creators were trying to help, they actually sensationalized teen suicide by making it into a game. Brian Yorkey, of the Broadway play Next to Normal, was one of the writers. I find this unbelievable because the play, which I saw at Theaterworks, was an excellent example of skilled acting portraying mental illness. My coworker at the shoreline newspaper covered a suicide of a young woman in high school while I worked there. Certainly, this Netflix series was an affront to the pain this young woman’s family and friends went through as well as all the other teen suicides that have happened. In most cases, suicide is caused by depression or other mental illnesses.
Depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, anxiety and other illnesses are no game. They are real diseases fought by real people. Although, stable and on meds, I fight the repercussions of my actions during my illness every day as well as discrimination and prejudice. We are not some lone jumper or the “craziness” of WWE. We are people struggling first with our daily lives and then, with our thoughts, minds and moods. You can’t over-simplify our conditions.
I’m not saying everyone should come out about their struggles on 60 Minutes. But more stories must be done describing accurately these conditions and the treatments for them. It is hard to find these sources because so many voices go unheard due to fear and discrimination. There needs to be a normalization in our society of what we feel. We need to come to a place of compassion for those who struggle and give them our respect, decency and dignity.