Mental Illness: Lighter and Darker
Miriam Markowitz, in “Madness in the Method” [April 22], on the TV series Homeland, speaks with false authority about mental illness and risks perpetuating dangerous stereotypes. She positions herself as an informed liberal who cares about past fights for civil rights and religious and sexual freedoms, but then she writes, “Profoundly different from race, sexual orientation, gender or creed, the stigma surrounding mental illness contains a dark unknown that is real rather than socially constructed. Some (and by no means all) mental disorders, no matter how much light they may generate, contain voids darker than a terrorist’s hidey-hole. Manic flights, voices, paranoia, suicide—these are not just the outside pressures of a treacherous social landscape. They are contained within the self, and the traditional rhetoric of diversity and inclusion cannot accommodate them. The minds of people with mental disorders are not just like ours.”
With this, Markowitz thoughtlessly diminishes people with mental health issues by implying that they deserve their marginalized status because they are different. This is offensive and embarrassing in the same way that ignorant statements from the past about people of color, women or LGBT people are offensive. I expect that in ten or fifteen years, statements like Markowitz’s will be scorned the way earlier statements about blacks being less than human—or that women cannot be trusted with the vote, or that gay people should not serve in the military—are scorned today. Similar statements about people with mental health problems, even though couched in liberal rhetoric, are also ignorant and discriminatory.
[NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST]
We believe that society should accept mental conditions the same way it accepts physical conditions. Whether or not Homeland is offensive to those diagnosed as bipolar is up to the individual with the condition. TV writers will dramatize any kind of situation to make compelling programming, regardless of how far it strays from plausibility. If one accepts Homeland’s depiction of the bipolar condition, one should consider it the reality of only one fictional character.
One thing the show got right is that folks who are bipolar can be subject to a loss of trust in others and of legitimacy in the eyes of others, a core stigma of this condition. If there is something helpful about Homeland, it is that it shows this stigma in action. But what we’d love to see is a nation that is aware and accepting of those with mental issues so that when a person with such issues is featured in the media, it isn’t so unusual that an article is written about it. This awareness will come with exposure to, and learning from, those diagnosed with these conditions, and will bring an end to the stigma and mystery.
Real change will come when we open up a dialogue with those suffering with mental issues instead of keeping them stigmatized and out of the conversation. So shows that bring such issues to the forefront could be a positive thing.
Mind(ful) Liberation Project
In her treatise on the portrayal of mental disability in the hit television series Homeland, Miriam Markowitz makes a critical point that any fan of the show would likely nod in agreement with: that we as a society lose out when people with mental disabilities are isolated and excluded from the workforce.
Markowitz notes the Catch-22 that people with mental disabilities face in making any disclosure to an employer. As Carrie experienced when the CIA discovered her mental disability in Homeland, any disability-related protections come at the price of losing one’s privacy and risking being viewed as a stereotype or a caricature.
Although Homeland is fiction, many of our greatest creative thinkers—including Beethoven, Winston Churchill and J.K. Rowling—acknowledged having mental disabilities. When we stereotype and marginalize people with psychiatric disabilities, we not only harm individuals; we also risk the loss to society of the talent and insight that these people can contribute. This was done in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, with the resurrection of the long-debunked stereotype of people with mental disabilities as violent.
We must not isolate and stigmatize those living with mental disabilities. Doing so only discourages them from seeking treatment, and from acknowledging their disability to family, friends and employers.