Our culture seems to have three ways of relating to people with mental illnesses–either they’re pathetic losers who need to “snap out of it”, or they’re crazies who need to be locked away (think schizophrenia in popular culture), or they’re here for our pleasure and entertainment. That last one is a relative newcomer, and that’s the one I want to write about here.
Just look at our celebrities–specifically, the ones with substance abuse problems. When it comes to them, it’s all fun and games till someone dies. While the late Amy Winehouse was still alive, blogs and magazines loved to publish photos of her visibly drunk, putting her up for public ridicule. Sure, everyone knew she could use some rehab–she sang about it herself–but there was never an ounce of compassion in how we, as a society, related to her.
And take Charlie Sheen, clearly a troubled individual. I don’t even remember how many days went by that articles making fun of him littered my Google Reader feed. With him, there isn’t even any ambiguity regarding the diagnosis, but he was still treated like a circus animal, and everyone sat back in their seats, made some popcorn, and watched.
Take TV shows like A&E’s Hoarders, Intervention, and Obsessed. These shows literally turn mental illness–and the treatment thereof–into entertainment. You can laugh as the poor OCD sufferer cries when forced to touch a gas pump nozzle with her bare hands, or gag as that creepy hoarder guy reveals his apartment full of old snack wrappers and rotting food.
I’m not saying that it’s wrong to inform people about the lives of those with mental disorders. What I’m saying is that this informing should be done in a compassionate, humanizing way, and reality TV isn’t always the best format for that. For instance, the show In Treatment, which describes a (fictional) therapist and his clients, is a far cry from the carnival sideshow-like feel of the reality shows. I’m not exactly a big fan of reality TV in general, but as a medium for educating the public about mental illness, it’s even worse than usual, because it creates an environment in which people view their fellow human beings as freaks to be gawked at, not as peers to be sympathized with. (A counselor quoted on Everyday Health calls it “exploitanment.”) This happens on virtually every reality show–think how much the people on Jersey Shore and American Idol get made fun of. The difference is that the people on Jersey Shore and American Idol (arguably) do not have a serious mental illness.
Ultimately, all media companies want to provide stuff that sells, and in the case of magazines that publish photos of drunken celebrities (with witty commentary, of course) and TV networks that produce shows putting people with mental disorders up for display, the money’s definitely talking–people love it. But the quality of mental healthcare in the U.S. will never improve while our culture continues to treat people with mental disorders as amusing distractions and not as people.