Those are actual words that have been said to me on numerous occasions, usually, of course, upon coming out about my diagnosis. I know that it’s also been said to friends of mine in the community of persons with mental health diagnoses, and that the sentiment can take any number of forms: “You’ve always seemed so normal,” “You don’t seem like the crazy people I’ve seen on TV,” and “You don’t look like you belong here,” said to me by a fellow patient during one of my three stays in a hospital psych unit.
It’s meant, almost always, as a compliment. The speaker feels that having a mental illness as an ugly stain upon a person’s appearance, and says this as an assertion that the listener is without such a vestige.
It’s sometimes also meant, on some level, as a dismissal. “Forget what the doctor says,” they had might as well be saying. “In fact, forget what the medical community has spent decades finding out.” And, most importantly, “Forget everything you’ve been through for months, maybe years, maybe decades. You don’t look like what I think a crazy person looks like, therefore you are not one.” It’s about as trivializing as you can get, despite the good intentions behind it.
There exists, obviously, and as I’ve said before, a gap between our cultural perceptions of what a person with mental illness is “supposed to” look like and act like, and how we actually do. We’re a diverse and vast community: mental illness can affect anyone, and the people living with it are our friends, neighbors, and classmates, colleagues, and family. But the media portrayals of people with mental illness that have surrounded us our whole lives have most people with no other source of information thinking otherwise.
People with mental illness are depicted as inept, childish, emotionally unreachable, and untrustworthy,
among other undesirable qualities, often exploited for comic effect. In the media, people with mental illness are most often male, and are physically distinctive: they’re either very tall or very short, they’re unkempt and unshaven, are disheveled and have poor hygiene, have bad haircuts, dress poorly, have lopsided smiles, and, perhaps most commonly, have what have come to be known as “crazy eyes.”
There are some theories as to why “the mentally ill” have, as a group, become homogenized by the media, as Dr. Otto Wahl describes in his outstanding book, Media Madness. One possibility is that the stereotypes exist as a way of separating “Us” from “Them:” if we can see ourselves as physically (and thus, in our superficial world, fundamentally) different from people with mental illness, then we need not fear that we’re “one of them.” A second theory is that, because mental illness is not nearly so concrete as other characteristics, or even physical illness, it can’t easily be portrayed visually. That changes, though, if easily recognizable visual associations are made with mental illness.
Whether or not media makers intend to perpetually assign undesirable associations with people living with mental illness, that’s exactly what they do when they rely on stereotyped portrayals. Not only that, but they’re limiting themselves as storytellers by choose to recycle stock characters rather than developing the more nuanced and accurate characters we’ve seen on shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and Homeland in recent years. They also make it difficult for people who do have mental illness but don’t fit the stereotypes to have their difficulties be taken seriously by their peers.
The attitude that stereotypes are just stereotypes and don’t do any harm, especially when they’re so obviously untrue, is the kind of ignorance that the media are in a very powerful position to reduce, or even end. Not only would it be a beneficial opportunity for them to take, but it’s also a part of their duty as a powerful international institution.