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.
SUSAN MIZNER, Disability Counsel
American Civil Liberties Union
New York City
Like the first writer, I believe that in the future we will look back at this moment with shame and anger, or I hope we will, given the gross transgressions committed against those with mental illness—a population that is arguably the most powerless in the country—every day, but especially right now, in the wake of last year’s series of mass shootings. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have deflected responsibility for these tragedies by proposing new measures to identify “the dangerously mentally ill”—future Lanzas and Loughners—through laws that are unlikely to prevent another Newtown but would make it mandatory to report and database someone who has voluntarily hospitalized herself for, say, depression or anorexia. (In some states, these laws are already on the books.) It’s easy to blame a mad world on the mad, even though those with mental illness are far more likely to be the targets of violence than its perpetrators.
Yet the crass, uninformed rhetoric surrounding mental illness may hold one kernel of truth: that “unquiet minds” are indeed different, and that to pretend they are not is silly and counterproductive. There is a clear connection between bipolar disorder and creativity, particularly in music and the language arts. (Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament is the seminal book on this topic.) The trope of the mad genius is not just a romantic idealization. Serious, well-designed studies have demonstrated that people with bipolar disorder are overrepresented in work in the creative arts, as are their first-degree relatives.
Temple Grandin has become an unbelievably successful advocate for the autistic brain and its value to society, claiming that many of the great scientific minds of the past, present and future lie, as we now say, “on the spectrum.” The autism community has boldly suggested that mental disorders or illness may not represent pathology but rather neurodiversity. This sounds like a euphemism, but I believe they are right. There is ample evidence that in our society, which is still so enamored of that horrid corporate cliché, “thinking outside the box,” there are many who think not just outside it but around and through and beyond it; for them, the box does not exist.
This is not to diminish the struggles of those with mental illness. The defunding of asylums and hospitals in the last century was widely hailed as a liberation, but many of these institutions provided humane care and a stopgap against destitution. Now a great number of the mentally ill reside in prisons or on the streets, and those who can access basic mental healthcare often find themselves fobbed off with fifteen minutes of face time and a handful of very expensive pills.
As for “false authority,” the first writer knows nothing about my connection to mental illness professionally or personally, but the question of who is qualified to understand mental illness has long been debated, rarely productively. Can the mad know their madness better than the sane? I think they can and often do, and that sanity is an unfortunately rare quality in modern America, even among the neurotypical. The radical form of sanity that so many with mental illness must cultivate in order to live—despite and because of their brushes with madness—is remarkable, and a wonder in a world where not much is.