Mental Health in the News: January 7-13, 2013

Washington, DC: “Michael J. Fitzpatrick , executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) met yesterday with Vice President Joseph Biden ‘s task force on gun control, along with other leaders of the mental health community, urging action to strengthen and expand mental health care services.” Biden’s task force is expected to report to President Barack Obama tomorrow (January 15) (NAMI Newsroom).

The UK: A blogger for The Guardian makes the case for awarding New Year Honours to people who people living with mental illness, those who care for them, and those who publicly stand up for them. The New Year Honours are awarded on January 1 to newly named members of the orders of chivalry. (The Guardian)

The US: Legislators struggle to write laws that balance civil liberties with the need to get help for people who pose a threat to themselves or others. (USA Today)

The US: The psychiatric community is not currently meeting the needs of people of Hispano-American, according to some. Minority populations are historically less inclined to use mental health services due to differing cultural attitudes toward seeking help outside of one’s own community. It is also difficult for Spanish speakers to find services offered in their primary language. (Huffington Post)

Kansas: The Kansas City Star was one of many publications this week to report (with varying levels of unintentionally stigmatizing language choices) on our flawed state mental health systems.

Minnesota: Citing concerns that the mental health needs of the incarcerated are not being met, State Senator Al Franken has introduced a bill that would provide federal funding for mental health programs in prisons and jails. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“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.

A Dark Day on Twitter

Content Warning: non-graphic description of self-harm, no images

Sometimes the diverse, powerful, and easily-abused forces of the Internet will concoct something so disturbing that even those of us who have never lived in a world without it can’t quite fathom what hath been wrought.

Today, that came in the form of a Twitter Trending Topic, and possibly the worst one of all time.

“cutforbieber,” which, as of the time of this writing, has been trending since a little before 2:00PM EST Monday, is a Twitter hashtag which supposedly originated as a campaign for Justin Bieber fans to harm themselves as a statement against the pop star’s alleged drug use.

Pop sensation Justin Bieber has long polarized music listeners. Because of this, he often finds himself at the center of controversies he never asked for.

Complex Magazine (linked page does not currently contain additional triggering content, but this is subject to change) broke the story that the trend was actually started as a hoax by 4Chan, a “bulletin board” site on the cruelest corner of the Internet. It’s unclear, though, how many people have actually self-harmed today as a direct or indirect result of this trending topic.

What disturbs me most was that the 4Chan member who originated the idea was actively and admittedly attempting to persuade young girls to self-harm. This kind of disregard for the seriousness of cutting and similar behaviors is astounding, and must be, albeit to lesser degrees, pretty widespread, for the topic to have reached the levels it did in the first place.

The trending topic is filled with tweets mocking cutting and people who cut, and others expressing anger, even hatred, for the girls who have ostensibly harmed themselves as part of the campaign. Their anger is dangerously misdirected, and exists in a contradictory culture where many young people express frustration with people who “cut for attention,” while just as many others romanticize and glorify images of self-harm on blogging sites like Tumblr.

The fact is that the ensuing attention is, for many, a factor that plays a major role in their self-harm. Their actions often serve as a signal to others that they are in desperate need of help when other methods haven’t worked. No actual self-harm should be immediately met  with outright disgust, especially when the psychological and emotional circumstances surrounding it are not known. Sometimes, like in this case, the cultural circumstances are the ones that merit our disgust.

But disgust, of course, it wasteful unless it’s accompanied with action. Action needs to be taken against the individuals who started the trend, and 4Chan needs to take responsibility about the dangers of allowing this kind of activity to take place. Justin Bieber and Twitter need to speak out about the topic. Please continue to educate yourself and others about the significance and seriousness of self-harm, and speak out when you hear ignorant speech about self-harm.

Mental Health in the News – December 31, 2012 – January 6, 2013

This is the first of what will be a weekly round-up of mental health-related stories from news sources around the country, and, occasionally, the world.

The week’s mental health headlines

MissouriThe Columbian printed profiles of a local man and woman in its report on mental health in the LGBTQ+ community. (The Columbian) Content warning: personal descriptions of eating disorders and physical abuse.

Connecticut“Gov. Dannel Malloy set a two-month deadline for a commission to address the state’s gun laws, mental health policies and public security issues.” Involvement from mental health experts has been strongly emphasized in addressing the aftermath of the Sandy Hook elementary tragedy. (CNN)

Wisconsin – Concerns that young people with mental health struggles often end up in the legal system have led to the formation of a community group called the Chippewa Health Improvement Partnership (CHIP). “CHIP is a volunteer group hosted through St. Joseph’s Hospital that provides an array of low-income care services in the area. Its volunteers include retired physicians, psychiatrists and other related fields.” Other groups local to the area take a preventative approach, through ensuring that children are raised in healthy home environments. These groups, including the United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley, were, as described in the article, more interested in the environmental factors of mental health than the biological. (Chippewa Herald)

New York – My local news station has been one of a handful to report on mental health stigma in the past few weeks. They wrote: “He says defamatory media will shame and deter many from seeking help, though most can substantially recover from disabling conditions with personalized services. He and other advocates said [that] recent emphasis on 24-hour emergency phone lines, peer support, housing, family services, managed care and outreach are showing results.” (WWNY TV-7)

AmsterdamA study published in Archives of Neurology reports concludes that there may be a link between dementia and depression, though one does not cause the other. In a group of over two-thousand people over 65 years old, people with depression were more than twice as likely to have dementia. (Psych Central)

Philadelphia – As bipolar disorder becomes more visible, some wonder whether it has become “over-diagnosed.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)

“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.

When Celebrities Talk About Their Mental Health

About two weeks ago, David Letterman became one of the latest celebrities to publicly talk about mental health struggles. In an appearance on This Morning, the legendary late-night host and recent Kennedy Center honoree recounted his long journey to control his depression. Not only was his honesty courageous, but some of the details he shared were a stigma-fighters’ dream.

David Letterman recently spoke publicly about his depression for the first time.

Letterman talked about his reluctance to seek medical treatment, and was very clear about the difference between the depression and anxiety he’s faced and the everyday emotional difficulties that are a part of everyone’s lives. On the topic of depression, Letterman was sincere and eloquent.

As I continue to emphasize, mental illness is still highly stigmatized, and most people aren’t able to openly discuss it. For reasons ranging from a lack of information to generations of socialization to fear, the mental health conversation just isn’t always happening, and that silence is damaging. Failing to freely and honestly discuss our mental health can hold us back from healthy relationships, harm our self-esteem, and prevent us from getting necessary help.

Celebrity comings-out like Letterman’s are good news for the mental health community for a variety of reasons.

1. They put mental health in the news. Every news outlet, high or low, has use for a celebrity story, so and especially engaging one will get plenty of play. As we know, the more we hear something talked about in the media, the more comfortable we’ll feel talking about it.

2. They provide inspiration to other people with similar struggles. I, for example, personally admire Demi Lovato. She overcame illness to return to a career through which she serves as a highly visible role model, particularly to young women. She’s very active as an advocate for mental health, and her story is one of hope.

3. They provide a face to misunderstood issues and concepts. The fact that mental health affects everyone’s life is often not fully understood, especially because it’s not always as concrete as physical health. Hearing about real, personal experiences with mental health helps us to better comprehend it.

4. They can disprove stereotypes. Media images of people with mental illness have long relied on stereotypes: “crazy eyes,” unkempt appearances, a tendency toward violence, social ineptitude, and a dangerously charming smile are among the characteristics we see on a high proportion of media portrayals of people with mental illness. When successful, talented, and well-liked people come forward to talk about their own mental health struggles, we learn that the stereotypes are far from reality.

I should clarify, though, that I don’t feel that any person should feel obligated to publicly talk about their mental health. Mental health is a deeply personal matter, and the line between talking about it with a support system and talking about it publicly is not a fine one.

I do feel, though, that people in the public eye should be aware that they’re in a position of influence. They should be aware of the good they can do by speaking out about the causes that are important to them, especially those cause to which they can lend a more personal touch. I would encourage such people who are able and ready to talk about their mental health to do so. The courage of those who have already done so is appreciated and commended.

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.

Does the Trigger Warning Have a Place in the Mass Media?

Anyone reading this probably has a sense of what a trigger warning is, but in case you don’t, it’s a brief note that some writers choose to place before materials that pose a risk of negative psychological repercussions for the reader. Subject matter such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and self-harm all pose numerous emotional risks for people with experience with these traumas. A warning will typically read something like “Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault.”

On a blog, trigger warnings essentially give readers a chance to stop and decide whether they’re emotionally ready to read a particular piece. Could this format translate to the mass media?

Trigger warnings are especially popular on blogging sites like Tumblr and Feministing, but have yet to gain any major attention outside that realm. Even within the blogosphere, they’re not without controversy. They’ve been used for years, but there isn’t any real agreement on the best way to write a trigger warning, exactly what content should be preceded by one, or even whether they’re effective. So I may be jumping the gun a little by suggesting that it’s worthwhile to explore the expansion their use into television, film, and print, but I think it merits consideration.

The closest thing in major American mass media to a trigger warning is the “Viewer Discretion” advisement that appears before television programs with violent or sexual content. These, of course, don’t exactly have the same purpose at heart.

By bombarding the senses, television and film are particularly powerful media for risking the kind of psychological reaction that trigger warnings serve to prevent. Again, trigger warnings aren’t just about trying not to upset or offend someone: it’s an issue of personal safety. When used on blogs, trigger warnings are a courtesy extended to readers as a means of protecting them.

The fact that trigger warnings are a matter of common courtesy, rising to ubiquity in the internet’s typical grassroots way, leads one to wonder if, and how, they could be regulated in the mass media. Should networks, publishers, and studios decide for themselves whether to use them, or this a matter for FCC and MPAA involvement?

And where do trigger warnings belong? How should they look and be written? How do we keep the term and concept from being misused and misunderstood?

Please leave your comments!

Throwback Review: It’s Kind of a Funny Story (Book, 2006)

Spoilers Lie Within

I really wanted to like this book. I know, that’s what everyone says. All the time. But I mean it, in the most sincere way. I’ve been wanting to read it for years, most of my friends have read it, and, the resurgence in popularity for The Perks of Being a Wallflower notwithstanding, it’s arguably the most visible recent novel with mental health and mental illness as a major theme. As the New York Times Book Review said, in words that will live on forever on the front cover of the paperback edition, “This is an important book.” My expectations were high.

Well, they were almost met.

I would say that, yes, this is an important book. Young-adult fiction that seriously and sensitively takes on the very real and human struggles that people the age of the reader face with their mental health is something we need a lot more of. On that level, this really succeeds. Vizzini threw in some charming statistics, just to make sure that his point wasn’t altogether missed: “One fifth of Americans suffer from a mental illness, and suicide is the number-two killer among teenagers,” protagonist Craig says at one point.

Vizzini presumably knows what he’s talking about; he was a patient (side note: there’s a school of thought that prefers the word “consumer” to patient, but as long as we use the word “patient” in the context of physical illness, I’m going to keep using it in this context) in a psychiatric hospital for five days, a fact of which we are reminded both on the back cover and in an italicized end-note opposite the novel’s last words. This knowledge lends some authenticity to the story, but also led me to the assumption that Craig was modeled almost completely after the writer himself.

Let’s just say that I have a stronger love-hate relationship with Craig Gilner than I remember having with any protagonist maybe ever. I get that he’s fifteen, so his emotional maturity has not exactly peaked, but damn, does he annoy me.

Now don’t jump at me right away. Craig faces some serious struggles throughout this book, and he does so with remarkable courage. He’s also compassionate, deeply so. I respect him. I also think he’s kind of a self-absorbed little dweeb.

I’m willing to concede that maybe it was just me projecting some of my less worthy emotions during my time in three different psych units, but I really got the sense that Craig thought of himself as better than his fellow patients. Like he was the voice of reason among them, or like his concern for them didn’t extend one moment past his discharge. I mean, he checked himself into the hospital, something most people would never be able to do for themselves, but once he’s there it feels like he thinks of himself as above the place, yet somehow also above the people who aren’t there with him. Again, he’s fifteen, and most of his reactions are pretty natural and realistic, but there’s something incredibly off-putting about the way he looks at and talks about the others in the hospitals with him. If it’s supposed to be a story of mental health disrupting the life of the relatable Everyman, I’d rather the Everyman not be some entitled little punk.

There were a few other little flaws that really irked me and held me back from enjoying what was, yes, an “important” book. It’s fair to assume that hospital policies changed between Vizzini’s stay in 2004 and the first of mine in 2011, but smoking, really? And Craig making it all the way to the unit with a cell phone and wallet in his pocket? Neither of these have any bearing on the plot, but anything that makes me roll my eyes is going to make its way into my review. There is one, though, that the plot relies on: no one in the staff seems to have any idea where any of the patients are at any given time. Where are the fifteen-minute checks with the flashlight and clipboard? It seems like Craig can sneak away long enough to do whatever he wants..

And that’s another thing. We didn’t need a romantic subplot. At all. Do we think so little of the “young-adult” reader that we don’t expect them to read without the tried-and-true protagonist/trusted long-time friend/mysterious new friend love triangle? Time in the hospital, at its best, is supposed to be a time of personal healing and renewal, and the romantic distraction detracts from both Craig’s time there and from what could have been some extremely person, introspective storytelling.

Oh which reminds me. I find it extremely hard to believe that Craig and Noelle would be put in the adult unit because there were renovations in the adolescent unit. Why not just transport them to another hospital where the adolescent unit is open?

And the parents were weird, weren’t they? I’ve never read more robotic dialogue in my life. Here’s what Mrs. Gilner says when she find out that her son has checked himself into the hospital:

“I thought I was a bad mother, but I’m a good mother if I taught you how to handle yourself. You had the tools to know what to do. That is so important. And they’re going to be great over there; it’s an excellent hospital. I’m coming right down — you want me to bring your dad?”

What? Where’s the parental fear, the questions, the motherly overreaction? She’s taking this way too well, and it really doesn’t sit well with the reader.

But enough nit-picking. A lot of this book is really brilliant. It’s a realistic and idiosyncratic look at depression through the mind of an extremely self-aware fifteen-year-old. It’s pretty flawed, but too spend too much time thinking about those flaws would be to miss the point. It tells an important story, and forces the readers to think about their own mental health, something most high school students would otherwise never give a moment’s attention to. And it doesn’t resort to scare tactics or shame-mongering to do so.

It sets the stage for some more literature on similar themes, some of which will be really great, some of which will be pretty awful, and most of which will slip under the radar. But breaking the silence is the first step, and Funny Story picks up right where Wallflower left off in that territory. Vizzini’s going to write something really incredible someday, and even if he doesn’t, this book isn’t too bad of a legacy to leave behind.

And no, I haven’t seen the movie.

“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.”

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(Conway ad, 2012)

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(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.