“Talking Crazy:” The Controversial Video Trying to Change Our Mental Health Language

Trigger Warning: Ableist Language

Adam’s Place is a small non-profit advocacy group with a mission I can stand behind: “To debunk the myths of mental illness through word, art, and education.” I, like many others, became aware of the organization this week through their most recent YouTube video, which has been given positive coverage by a handful of fellow advocacy groups, most notably Bring Change 2 Mind. The short video was shared with me by a close friend and mental health advocate, who prefaced it with a simple “Tell me what you think of this.”

I had a bad feeling about the video immediately upon seeing its’ title: “Talking Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness.” The subtitle was promising: after all, ‘breaking the silence’ is a key part of what I do as an advocate, and I firmly believe that opening a conversation about mental health is the first and most important event in a chain reaction leading to a world where people have access to and willingly use the resources they need.

What I was stuck on was “crazy.” I’ve written in previous posts about my thoughts about the word, but it seems appropriate to expound upon them here. In my early days of advocating, I was a staunch enforcer of the social rule that the word “crazy” was not to be used in my presence, ever. “Crazy,” I would explain, is a word that attaches the harmful stereotypes surrounding mental illness to the people, events, objects, and concepts that the word is used to describe. It’s an adjective that refers not only to the absurd, the inexplicable, and the bizarre, but the laughable, the dangerous, and the outright wrong: all things that, of course, I didn’t and still don’t want mental illness to be viewed as.

My views on the word have changed, if only slightly. After a year of developing a reputation as “the guy who won’t let you say ‘crazy'” (ask my friends; they’ll tell you), I began to examine what my actual problem was with the word. What I decided was that my efforts to banish the word from the lexicon were, though well-intentioned, a bit wasteful. Yes, it is true that “crazy” is an ableist slur, used to oppress people who have, or are perceived to have, any form of mental illness. It is a word that is, I still feel, never to be used to describe any person. To do so is simply dehumanizing. However, I no longer feel the concern I once felt about using “crazy” to describe, for example, a hectic day at work. If you want to say that you just made the craziest game-winning touchdown, or that you have a crazy amount of homework, I’m not going to stop you. That kind of policing is, to me, a distraction from taking real steps toward changing the mental health conversation.

That said, I was very shocked by what I heard in “Talking Crazy.” “Crazy people are everywhere,” the narrator tells us. “I’m not saying that to scare you. If anything, I hope it will encourage you.” These words are accompanied by an image of a group of smiling people, each labelled by either a diagnosis (schizophrenia, major depression, OCD, bipolar) or an ill-formed punchline (“likes Justin Bieber”). Throughout the uncomfortable four minutes, the narrator continues to refer to “crazy people,” while asserting that not everyone is part of this category. His key goal, it seems, is to justify and encourage the use of the word in our discussions of mental health. He argues that “mental illness” is a cold and clinical phrase, while “crazy” is conversational, and inclusive in meaning. His analogy (which I find flimsy) is the word “love,” which is almost infinite in its versatility in the vernacular.

What it comes down to is an attempt to ameliorate the word “crazy.” Much like slurs such as “bitch” or the N-word have been reclaimed and redefined by the groups they are used to oppress, this video aims to “take back” crazy, and make something positive of it. I understand this premise: the implication is that introducing “crazy” into our conversations about our own mental health might bring some levity to what is often a dark circumstance, or even help us to accept that mental health struggles are a part of all of our lives. The way it’s presented here, though, is unsettling. Referring to “crazy people” the way this video does creates the Us vs. Them mentality that is at the heart of mental health stigma: that is, the false notion that there are people who are crazy, and people who are not. Everyone exists on the mental health spectrum. There is no line of distinction that can be made between someone who is “crazy” and someone who is not, and for the narrator of this video to have done so is both off-putting and offensive.

Beyond that, there’s a big difference between “crazy” and words that have been ameliorated by other marginalized or oppressed groups. Those words are attached to groups that exist by shared Identity. Sociologically, historically, and culturally, race and gender are generally considered capital-I Identities. I don’t mean to say that anyone is defined by race or gender. I am aware that many people choose not to identify with any race or gender, and that many people who do feel no connection between their race and gender and who they are as a human being. What I am saying though, is that the long history of categorizing and creating hierarchies based on race and gender have created communities that seek and gain empowerment through their deeply-connected nature.

Mental health forms a very different community. While mental health and illness, by their very nature, have the potential to be intrinsically tied to a person’s sense of self, a diagnosis or a mental health label of any kind is not a capital-I Identity. The reason for this is well-being: building an Identity around a diagnosis is a massive hindrance to recovery. Calling oneself a “crazy person” has the potential not to facilitate acceptance, but to create an unhealthy obsession with one’s status as a person with mental illness. To put it plainly, I’m just not comfortable with that.

What bothers me most in “Let’s Talk Crazy” is the implication that the viewers will instantly accept the video’s premise. I’m not ready to live in a world where it’s okay to call me crazy just because that’s easier for people than saying “mental illness.” I’ll gladly continue to be open about my mental health experiences, even at the risk of being labelled and judged. I want the mental health conversation to happen, and to be framed in an educated manner, and to be accessible to everyone. What I will not accept is for my mental health to be discussed and understood on someone else’s terms. I am a person with bipolar disorder, but as long as I make the choice not to call myself “a crazy person”, I hope that you will make the choice not to call me one, either.

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Open Letter to Sinéad O’Connor

Dear Sinéad O’Connor,
I am writing, of course, in response to your highly-publicized communication with Miley Cyrus. I assume that your intention in contacting Cyrus was not to spark a celebrity feud to be weighed in on by tabloids and bloggers, there’s really no putting the toothpaste back in that tube, so I hope you don’t mind if I join the conversation.

You’re coming from the right place, Ms. O’Connor. You’re coming from an informed, well-meaning, enlightened place. You reached out to a young artist who was in a position you recognized as dangerous and offered your experience as a means of reaching her with advice that you saw as important. I sincerely believe that Miley Cyrus’ choice to use nudity and sexualized imagery in her work is her own, and is her genuine self-expression, but I applaud you for respectfully bringing your concerns to her.

When your letter was met with rudeness and mockery, you did something else for which I applaud you: you boldly called Cyrus out on ridiculing celebrities who have lived with mental health struggles, and demanded an apology. You spoke up for yourself and others whose mental health difficulties have been exacerbated by taking place in the public eye. You called her irresponsible, and you very plainly informed her that “Mockery causes death.” Your strong stance against mental health stigma is appreciated.

However, I take some issue with the way you expressed yourself to Cyrus. The following passages from your second and third letters, respectively, were profoundly hypocritical, and detract heavily from your argument:


“You will yourself one day suffer such illness, that is without doubt. The course you have set yourself upon can only end in that, trust me.”
“When you end up in the psych ward or rehab I’ll be happy to visit you.. and would not lower myself to mock you.”


How does it serve you to chidingly predict that Cyrus will become ill and be hospitalized? These comments, to me, read as just as offensive as Cyrus’ comments to you. Your letter simultaneously castigates Miley Cyrus for not taking mental health seriously while attacking her own, despite your having no knowledge of her actual health situation. To threateningly use an ill-informed guess at a person’s future mental health (something you have no authority, or right, to do) as you did is a sign that you’ve let your emotions get in the way of forming a composed, level-headed response to Cyrus.

Furthermore, I feel that to repeatedly call Cyrus “anti-female” is a harsh characterization, and demonstrates a limiting and closed-minded perception of what it means to be female. Amanda Palmer has already written to you on this topic much more eloquently than I am equipped to, but I feel it necessary to express that I wholeheartedly stand with her on a woman’s right to be in control of her own sexuality.

That said, I thank you for being a true and genuine advocate for mental health. Thank you for using your voice and your respected (albeit controversial) place in the culture to speak out for people who are often made to feel afraid to speak for themselves. As a fellow advocate, however, I ask that you please take more care in the future to speak with fairness so that your valuable perspectives about mental health stigma can make the impact they deserve to.

Best wishes,
Jared Wolf

“But You Don’t Look Crazy…”

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.

Stereotypes about gender and mental health can, and often do, interact.

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,

Seinfeld character “Crazy” Joe Davola is a classic example of a character based on these stereotypes.

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.

The initial plan to cast actual patients in the Oregon State Hospital in supporting roles in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were scratched because they did not meet the director’s expectations of what people in a psych unit should look like.

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.

“Classic” Stigma: Great Sitcoms of the 90s, Pt. 2

A few days ago, I published a post about an episode of Will & Grace, the premise and script of which were pretty stigmatizing to the mental health community. I broke down the plot points and dialogue that were particularly harmful, and attempted to explain the episode’s flaws within the context of the portrayal of mental health in comedy. Tonight, I do the same with an episode of another great show from the same era: Seinfeld.

All things considered, Seinfeld just might be the greatest cultural icon, ever. Like I said in my previous post, it changed the face of situation comedy. But, like most art from decades past, reveals some signs of being the product of a different cultural landscape. I bring you the season seven episode, “The Gum,” which aired December 14, 1995.

Stigma synopsis

About two minutes into the episode, we find out that Lloyd Braun, a childhood friend of George’s (Jason Alexander) and one of Elaine’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) many ex-boyfriends, has experienced a “nervous breakdown,” and had an extended stay in “an institution.” Kramer (Michael Richards) has now taken Braun on as something of a personal project. He urges his friends to support Braun and treat him as though nothing as happened.

Kramer assures Lloyd Braun that he is not “crazy.”

While Kramer over-indulges Braun out of misplaced friendly concern, George is fascinated with Braun’s mental state, taking a certain degree of joy in it. He wears a smile as he tells Elaine, “they had to lock him up.” Elaine is now worried that she was an impetus in Lloyd’s episode.

Jerry, like always, is content to stand back and quip about everyone else’s reactions, rather than actually get involved. He mocks George and Elaine with some typical mental illness jokes.

The plot thickens when George runs into another childhood friend, the lovely Deena, and tells her about Lloyd: “Speaking of crazy, did you hear about Lloyd Braun?… He’s completely bonkers!” It turns out that her grandfather had a similar experience. George becomes very concerned upon hearing this, because that same grandfather is working on George’s car as they speak.

Throughout the remainder of the episode, comedic mishaps lead Elaine to inadvertently hit on Lloyd several times. Kramer continues to over-protect Lloyd, comforting him with “you’re not crazy.” George experiences a series of coincidences involving a cashier on a horse and a car fire, confirming Deena’s concerns that he’s exhibiting the warning signs of a nervous breakdown. George objects, saying that he doesn’t belong in “the nut house,” but Deena is entirely sure that there’s something wrong when she catches him wearing a King Henry VIII costume. She runs away from him, and the storyline closes.

So What?

Unlike the Will & Grace episode in my prior post, this one doesn’t come across as a blanket condemnation of people with mental illness. Actually, Lloyd Braun and the grandfather character are both portrayed as likeable, rational, and intelligent, three qualities often eschewed in media portrayals of mental illness. On the negative side, Lloyd is shown socially inept and unintuitive, a far cry from his former self as portrayed in the season 5 episode “The Non-Fat Yogurt.” To be fair, he was being portrayed by a different actor this time (the original actor was not available for filming), but there was a vast disparity in the way the character was written and depicted. This signified to the viewer that we are to believe that people who have experienced mental health difficulties have major personality changes that are perceptible even after recovery. This is, it should go without saying, not the case.

Most of the jokes in the episode rely on the audience sharing certain beliefs about people with mental illness. For example, when we see George’s reaction to finding out that retired mechanic ‘Pop’ has had a nervous breakdown, the audience laughs because they, like George, are afraid that a mentally ill man will certainly damage his car.

The stereotype that people with mental illness are incompetent is, as you know, still around today. We see it in places like this 2009 ad online gambling ad, where a group of psych hospital patients, shown as childish and erratic, can’t even make it through a game of poker.

The premise of the episode also relies on the assumption that there is reason to be socially uncomfortable around people who have experienced mental illness. Actually, mental illness isn’t technically the issue at play; it’s the hypothetical concept of “mental imperfection,” that most people are in perfect mental health and that those who aren’t are lesser, when in reality, we all struggle with our mental health in some way.

All four main characters, possibly excluding Jerry, behave differently around Lloyd than they would around anyone else, because of his supposed mental imperfection. They actually exhibit pretty common reactions to a friend with mental illness: Elaine’s needless guilt, George’s schadenfreude, and Kramer’s over-protection are all archetypes for the way people really do often behave in that kind of situation. The episode almost seems to want us to believe that these are the right reactions.

Impressively, the episode is actually really funny, and as such serves as a light look at stigma in our world. Now that general understanding of mental illness is somewhat more nuanced than it was 1995, I wonder what this episode would look like it had been made today.

“Classic” Stigma: Great Sitcoms of the 90s, Pt. 1

Times sure have changed, and they’re changing fast. Will & Grace and Seinfeld are two of the most influential sitcoms of the past twenty years: one changed the face of television comedy forever, and the other joined Ellen DeGeneres in opening the door for gay men and women to be visible on mainstream television.

But looking at these gem of the ’90s through a ’10s lens, we can see that they’re far from perfect. More specifically, we can see that each series has contributed at least one episode worthy of a Mental Health Stigma Hall of Fame, if such a dubious honor did indeed exist. Let’s take a look at the missteps each show took in their treatment of mental health and where the episodes in question fall in the grand scheme of mental health in comedy.

First up is the Will & Grace episode aptly titled “Crazy in Love.”

When Karen and Jack think that their friend has borderline personality disorder, they fear for their lives, and laughs ensue. What does this say about the way we see mental health in our culture?

Stigma Synopsis

In this episode, which aired February 1, 2001 (the ’90s are, by my definition, the period between the debut of Rocko’s Modern Life and the day Chandler and Monica got married, so this counts), we find Grace (Debra Messing) lying to get out of jury duty. To do so, she’s concocted a fake doctor’s note, on which she’s written that she has borderline personality disorder, with “high risk for psychotic break, particularly under stressful situations.” This description, of course, has no connection to borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by impulsivity, black-and-white thinking, turbulent relationships, and unstable self-image.

The BPD bit is dropped until nearly halfway through the episode, when Jack and Karen (Sean Hayes and Megan Mulally, respectively), find the faked letter. They read aloud some snippets from the note: “personality disorder,” “job-related stress,” “prone to aggressive outbursts,” and simultaneously gasp “she’s a psycho!” Cue audience laughter.

Now hold up just a second. Karen has known Grace for about three years now, and Jack’s known her even longer. Surely they know her well enough at this point to understand that, even if the diagnosis of BDP were real, she’s not the type of “psycho” they’re picturing? Sure, they’re shallow and judgmental people with little regard for logic, but they’re making a pretty big leap off of one letter.

In his next scene, Jack uses some sound effects and hand gestures to demonstrate the kind of “crazy” that he’s always suspected Grace to be (the universal “cuckoo” sign) and the kind of crazy that he now believes her to be (Psycho theme and stabbing motion. Cue audience laughter. Karen replies, to more laughter, “My mother’s crazy. That’s why I had her committed.” (I’m sorry if I’m going into too much detail on this episode, but there’s just so much.)

Jack and Karen are worried. Not for Grace, of course, but for themselves. As Jack points out, “Ninety percent of assaults are committed by someone you know.” Karen points out that maybe Grace isn’t violent though, because (now get this): “She doesn’t even have one personality, let alone six or seven.”

In classic sitcom fashion, unrelated events are meanwhile causing Grace to behave strangely, feeding her friends’ suspicions even more. They play it safe, feeding her compliments and staying a few steps away from her at all times. This is all played for more laughs. When Grace realizes where the misunderstanding’s come from, she decides to use it to her advantage.

Enter Will (Erin McCormack), who helps Grace decide “what kind of crazy” she should be. She can’t be “Barbra Streisand in Nuts,” he says, because “crazy people don’t have French tips or $600 highlights.” Grace decides that the best route is to “kiss the wall and hum.”

Once Grace has finally gotten what she wanted (free rein in designing Jack’s apartment), she confesses to her ruse and everyone lives happily ever after.

So What?

This TV episode takes a classic theme in horror and drama – fear of people with mental illness – and applies it to comedy. In the process, it commits some major offenses.

First off, it fudges the facts a little. Throughout the episode, Grace’s alleged diagnosis is discussed as though it were a mental illness, but it’s not. A personality disorder is a set of traits and behaviors that, over time, threaten a person’s daily functioning. They can be managed but, unlike a mental illness, are not treated with medicine.

While inappropriate anger is a symptom of BPD, violence toward others is not especially common. All four characters seem convinced otherwise, based on three telling false assumptions:

1. That all psychological disorders and personality disorders are alike

2. That only a certain type of person has these disorders

and

3. That these people are prone to violence

I don’t know whether these unfortunate notions were shared by the writers, but the nature of the show is such that they were certainly assuming that said notions were shared by the audience.

The episode also makes light of mental health, somewhat cruelly. Karen should never be expected to be politically correct, but she speaks of having her mother committed so callously, it’s a little chilling.

So’s the way Karen and Jack have their entire perception of Grace changed after knowing her for years. They’re quick to judge and cast their friendship aside in favor of more selfish concerns. (Granted, that’s how they always behave, but seeing it applied to mental health might just be too real to be funny).

In fact, the episode offers a pretty realistic look at how two completely uninformed people might react to finding out about their friends’ mental illness. The fear and confusion that Jack and Karen feel is very real, but, like I said, it’s not funny. We, as the audience providing that ever-charming background laughter, should not be relating to the sentiment that Grace is a “psycho.” We shouldn’t be laughing at the mockery they employ to cope with the fear, or as Grace exploits the fear for her own gain. There’s comedy in the darkest of circumstances, but this episode tries to make us laugh viciously at the expense of others, rather than healthily at the things in life we can’t control.

This episode says a lot about how we react to mental illness. It may be intended to be funny, but it’s more effective as a tool for examining stigma than it is as comedy. I’d like to say that this aired just eleven years ago with little outcry is a strong indicator of how far mental health advocacy has come in that time, but I wonder whether there would have been much more reaction if this episode aired today.

The things we laugh at can speak volumes about our fears and insecurities. When mental illness is exploited for comedy, what are we really laughing at?

I’ll be back for Part 2 of this series on Monday, to explore a classic episode of Seinfeld.

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

Areyouhappynow.PNG

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.

“Insane Deals” and Other Problematic Selling Points

It’s the same every year: no retailer wants to miss out on the holiday sales boost, so they need new and exciting ways to tell us about their new and exciting deals. Two words that never seem to go out of vogue? “Insane” and “crazy.”

Image

(Conway ad, 2012)

Untitled 2

(Sears Website, 2012)

Let’s get one thing straight: “crazy” and “insane” are mental illness slurs. They serve to oppress, deride, and dismiss. They’re words that are used by people who don’t have enough education to have a real talk about mental health. They get used in the set-ups of insulting psych ward jokes, or to describe unthinkable crimes, and, apparently, to move merchandise. Their connotations tie directly to the worst stereotypes and misconceptions held about people with mental illness, and they drag up every unpleasant emotion associated these words every time they’re used. They can, and should, be avoided, and using them toward another person is inexcusable.

So what about using them in ads, promotions, and point-of-purchase media, like many stores and brands have? They’re not actually calling anyone crazy, so where’s the harm? Well, it’s a gray area. To me, it’s all about scope, context, and what message you’re actually sending. When ads like these use the words, what they’re really saying is something like, “These savings are so great, we’d have to be crazy to offer them!” In fact, in case you think I’m exaggerating, there was a Volkswagen ad back in the good old days of 1986 reading “To offer these deals we’d have to be committed.”To offer deals like this...

“Crazy” and “insane” aren’t inherently evil words, and using them doesn’t make you a bad person. When you say you “just had the craziest day,” you aren’t trying to insult anyone, and the odds that anyone’s feelings are actually hurt are pretty slim. The chances that you’re making someone uncomfortable trend a bit higher. I cringe every time I hear them, especially in the case of “insane.” I was recently at a conference where a speaker made a room full of people audibly gasp by letting “crazy” slip in a fairly innocent context. We didn’t hold it against her, but the tension was there.

So it’s concerning, if not outright annoying, to see them used in nationwide ads and posted all over stores. I don’t need to be reminded of the social struggles faced by people with mental illness when I just wanted to buy a sweater.

Royce White: The most important story in sports?

Royce White tweet

When Royce White was picked in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets, he already had years of hype behind him, having led the Cyclones in points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocked shots during his sophomore years of college, and carrying his team to a perfect record in his senior year of high school. Now the Rockets are 25 games into the regular season, and their potential new star hasn’t played a single minute of a single game, instead becoming the poster boy for the complicated relationships between mental health and employment and mental health and masculinity.

Even before the draft, White came forth to admit that he is living with an anxiety disorder, becoming the first prospect to do so, according to Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo S. Torre. The potential NBA superstar did so, he said, because he wanted to “start helping people.” If bringing light to an issue in a community that’s never really talked about it before constitutes helping people, and it does, then he’s definitely accomplished what he set out to. But is he bringing real change?

Royce White was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder a few years ago. Let’s just say he can’t stop talking about it. Take a look at his Twitter. Read any of the (very few) interviews he’s given. His goal is one that he shares with myself and many others, including most of my readers: raising awareness. And he’s definitely done that. The high-pressure hyper-masculine world of sports, where mental health is almost never talked about, is talking about it now. The understanding that mental illness, like mental illness, is not a personal weakness or failure is being made, slowly.

I had the pleasure of meeting sports journalist Pablo Torre about a month ago and hearing him speak about the ways that sports culture feeds into mental health stigma. First, athletics and masculinity are almost synonymous. In both, people are expected to fight through the pain, revealing no emotion or fear. A man who shows signs of weakness or imperfection runs the risk of being seen as less of a man, and the same is true of an athlete. We see that physical injury is celebrated: an athlete who gets hurt and gets back on the field is a hero. The hit he took- his moment of fearlessness- is played again and again. The same is not possible in the case of mental illness; that “tangible proof”, which Torre described as “necessary” in the sports culture, simply doesn’t exist. This leaves fans, fellow athletes, and policymakers to create their own explanations: is the illness just an excuse, they wonder. A cry for pity or attention? A sign of weakness?

So for all the support that White is getting as an outspoken mental health advocate, there’s plenty of hate going around, too. And confusion. And well-meaning belittlement. And it begs the question: Is White really going about this the right way?

I’m 100% ready to give him the benefit of the doubt on his approach to raising awareness. I can’t say that I know how the Rockets are treating him, or how much effort is actually being made on both sides of the situation to come to an agreement about how White’s anxiety should be handled by the NBA. I’m in no position to say who’s right or wrong, but personal experience tells me that most employers and institutions, especially larger ones, are highly under-equipped to accommodate for mental health needs.

Which is why I’m troubled by unforgiving reports like this one that accuse White of “playing the martyr” with his diagnosis, and gives full credit to the NBA. “Most teams in the NBA would never give White this kind of special treatment,” the writer says. But what White is asking for isn’t “special” treatment; it’s fair treatment. He’s asking for mutual respect, and the understanding that he’s operating under limitations. He’s asking that the NBA implement a protocol for players living with diagnoses like his.

To be fair, though, he’s been vague about what this “protocol” really means. This piece, which also displays some pro-NBA bias, makes light of White’s anxiety while making much of his Tweeting. It’s true that the athlete hasn’t been particularly specific about his expectations from the NBA, but again, we here on the outside of the situation don’t really have the necessary information to judge whether White and the NBA have been fair to each other. One thing we do know is that his team has demanded that he see their therapist, rather than his own, who he has been seeing for years.

The Royce White situation has some people wondering: are certain careers outside of the reasonable realm of possibility for people with certain conditions? As a mental health advocate, my instant answer is no. But many insist that the risk should not have been taken on drafting White. We all have limitations for which we must account in any choice we make in life, but these distinctions are ours to make. Whether Royce White is currently capable of fulfilling his contractual obligations to the NBA is not something I can know, but I applaud him for his courage in openly discussing his diagnosis. I sincerely hope that his story leads to greater workplace accommodations for people living with mental illness, and that, should playing for the Houston Rockets remain his dream, he is able to fulfill it.

Should TIME Apologize?

On December 3, 2012, TIME.com published a report on the completion of edits to the newest edition of the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The new manual, the DSM-5, is scheduled for publication in May 2013.

John Cloud’s article on the development, titled in part “Redefining Crazy,” is misleading, demeaning, and unprofessional in its presentation of information related to mental health. The title alone is highly stigmatizing, making use of a highly offensive mental health slur with no consideration of its meaning. Referring to people with mental illness as “crazy,” especially in a journalistic or academic context, is unconscionable.

Furthermore, the article makes frequent and vague reference to critics of mental health diagnoses, without balancing these opinions with the evidence that support and validate the diagnoses.

The piece also relies on dismissive and insulting descriptions of the disorders described. According to cloud, binge eating disorder is “eating an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s,” and excoriation and hoarding are “reality show disorders.” Cloud’s attempts at humor are highly inappropriate in this context, and have the potential to be extremely harmful where people struggling with their mental health are already mocked and subjected to stereotypes.

Several readers have commented on the irresponsibility of the article, and have taken their demand for an official apology to petition-building site Change.org, where it has gained 245 signatures to date.

It is my opinion that TIME should issue an apology for this article, and that John Cloud, who has a history of misleading and stigmatizing reporting on mental health, should undergo sensitivity education before being allowed reporting on mental health for the magazine and its website again.

What do you think? Are the petition writers and I being too critical in our reading of the article, or are our criticism warranted?

See the petition here: http://www.change.org/petitions/time-magazine-apologize-for-the-article-redefining-crazy