Mental Health in the Media: Worst of 2012

Content Warning: mentions of suicide

I can’t deny that the major portrayals of mental health in the media have come a long way. We’re seeing accurate, sensitive, and responsible looks at mental health and illness across genres, and it’s thrilling to see the silence broken in such an impactful and visible way.

But we’re not quite there yet. Here, in no particular order, are some of the most misguided and unfortunate portrayals of mental health that have crossed my desk in the past twelve months.

“Are You Happy Now?” – SpongeBob SquarePants

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In this episode of the long-running Nickelodeon cartoon, the cantankerous Squidward copes with feelings resembling depression after realizing that he doesn’t have a “happiest memory.” The episode features two blatant and disturbing suicide sight gags, a far cry from the more subtle humor of the show’s early days. Mocking suicide is never appropriate, and doing so alongside a visual representation, on a children’s show no less, is unconscionable.

“Lids” – Saturday Night Live

And while we’re on that particular subject, SNL committed a similar crime this year when it, too, joked about suicide in a sketch. After a faux-PSY performed a rendition of “Gangnam Style,” host Seth MacFarlane, as a Lids employee, said, “Man, if you’re not in a better mood after that, you’d might as well just hang yourself in the stockroom.”

Bipolar – Chinkie Brown ft. Lil Scrappy

The sultry singer tells a lover goodbye. Why? Because he might “be bipolar… Bye, polar, bye.”

Pitch Perfect

“Kill yourselves,” charming villain-turned-love-interest Bumper Allen says to his female a-ca-mpetitors. And that’s supposed to be a punchline.

that one line in Perks of Being a Wallflower

The film adaptation of Perks was outstanding, and I hate to nitpick here, but there was one moment that was really didn’t sit well with me. You guessed it, it’s Emma Watson’s non sequitur “I love bulimia” line. I don’t understand what a line like that, which makes light of a serious eating disorder with absolutely no explanation (if we later found out, for example, that Watson’s character was actually dealing with bulimia and was using attempted humor to cope), was even doing in a film about youth mental health. It’s been four months, and I’m still waiting for an explanation.

“Sheer Madness” – Raising Hope

Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend is back in town, and he realizes that he likes her more now that she’s off her mood stabilizers. Because she’s a lot more fun.

Jacintha Saldanha death – almost everyone

This one speaks for itself. After the death of Jacintha Saldanha by apparent suicide, countless news agencies speculated that her death was the direct result of the infamous “Royal Radio Prank” of which she was an unsuspecting victim. By pushing blame for her death onto a single isolated incident, the countless tabloid-style stories that ran about Saldanha trivialized both the mental health aspects contributing to the tragedy and the seriousness of suicide. News coverage of suicide tends to mystify the act and depict it as inevitable, rather than offering insight into prevention or showing even the least bit of respect for the life of the deceased.

Lark Vorhies rumors-  People and Entertainment Tonight

In October 2012, when People Magazine published a story based on interviews they conducted with former Saved By the Bell star Lara Vorhies and some people close to her, they took an angle that the actress wasn’t expecting, claiming that Vorhiees had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“Voorhies, 38, would frequently stop mid-sentence and stare off, often mumbling to herself or to others who weren’t there,” the magazine reported in its sensationalist and ill-informed story about Vorhiees’ “sad spiral.”

It got messier when Entertainment Tonight picked up the story, and aired a series of pieces centered around an interview that was, as one online commentator put it, “bitchy.” And I couldn’t agree more. Vorhies was visibly flustered by the interviewer’s accusational tone, irrelevant line of questioning (“Do you hear voices?” she asked, apropos of nothing), and intrusive aim of making the actress out herself.

The exploitation continued when ET had the interview analyzed by a “respected psychiatrist” (with Lark’s permission, they said) who, thankfully, stated that he was unable to speculate on her diagnosis based on the interview.

The story was picked up elsewhere on the web, where some bloggers implied that Vorhies’ idiosyncratic manner of speaking, characterized by misused words and run-on sentences, was proof that her alleged diagnosis was valid.

Honorable Mention: American Horror Story:Asylum

As the National Alliance on Mental illness opined in October, the latest season of American Horror Story, set in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, just might be too over-the-top to be stigmatizing. Sure, there’s nothing positive about the ongoing ‘trend’ of casting mental healthcare as the setting for horror entertainment, but no one watching the series is likely to mistake its events and characters for mental health reality. The series perpetuates existing stereotypes about mental health and violence, and the nature of psychiatric hospitals, but is produced in such a way that viewers with even an ounce of media literacy will understand that what they’re watching has no connection to the reality of mental health.

That said, the coverage of the show in the entertainment news media was probably more stigmatizing than Asylum itself. Headlines like “New Cast Goes Nuts” and “Back to the Loony Bin” offer some examples of the mental health slurs and clichés that writers on the TV beat chose in discussing the program.

Best of 2012: Mental Health in Music

Music and mental health go pretty much hand-in-hand. Music “soothes the soul,” keeps us centered, and lets us express to the world who we are.

As 2012 comes to a close, the time seems right to honor some songs that contribute honest, sensitive, and meaningful statements on mental wellness and illness. While mental health plays a role in the meaning of all music, these are songs that are about mental health in a more explicit or specific way. They’re all by artists whose music runs the gamut in terms of subject matter, and most of them didn’t write or perform them with mental health advocacy in mind. Through their honesty and remarkable talent, though, they are all advocates, and I thank them.

Here are my picks for the top three songs about mental health in 2012:

1. P!nk – The Great Escape

The superstar (read: future legend) who told us we were “fucking perfect” in 2011 has now given us this album track, an urgent but gentle ballad that asks us to do one (sometimes) simple thing: live.

2. Elizaveta – Dreamer

Without question one of the most beautiful and hopeful songs I’ve ever heard. Elizaveta’s full debut album, Beatrix Runs, is my pick for the title of best album of the year.

3. Fiona Apple – Every Single Night

Anyone who’s ever dealt with overwhelming anxiety knows exactly what alternapop veteran Fiona Apple means when she sings “Every single night’s a fight with my brain.”

And some other favorites, in no particular order:

fun. – Carry On

One of the ultimate “I know you’ve got it rough, but please just keep going” songs.

Kelly Clarkson – Dark Side

In what is more or less a companion piece to her masterpiece “Maybe,” Clarkson sings one for the people who know what it’s like to be something other than yourself sometimes.

Of Monsters and Men – Little Talks

They were mysteriously snubbed by the Grammys, but maybe being on this list will mean something to Icelandic folk artists Of Monsters and Men, who broke through with this catchy duet about grief. Its exact meaning is unclear, but, after all, “the truth is varied.”

Kacey Musgraves – Merry Go ‘Round

That this dark and honest piece has become the hit that it has marks a major shift for country radio, which just a few years ago would never have welcomed a song about drug addiction by a new artist. There’s no happy or hopeful ending, just the all-encompassing and all-important question of what the pressures of today’s American life mean for all of our well-being.

Ed Sheeran – The A Team

A heartbreaking tale of addiction and homlessness

Lauren O’Connell – Things are Alright

Under-recognized singer-songwriter Lauren O’Connell is at her rawest in this honest and pained guitar-and-voice-and-nothing-else- piece about depression. Sometimes you just need to know that someone else gets it…

Florence + The Machine – Shake It Out

… And sometimes you need someone to kick you back into shape, like Florence Welch does with this explosive and empathetic hit about coming to terms with your flaws and limitations and starting over.

Alabama Shakes – Hold On

Rounding out the pack is a bluesy-folk ode to the power of perseverance from one of the year’s most promising new artists.

Be sure to leave your comments below.. Are there any songs you wish I had included?