[In Brief] How to Talk About Mental Illness Recovery Without Shaming

Lucy Hale covers this month’s Cosmo.

Remember that post about celebrity gossip I just wrote? Well, here’s an example of how reading that stuff can be useful and enlightening.

I’m reading an interview in the September issue of Cosmo with Lucy Hale, a 23-year-old actress most known for her role on Pretty Little Liars, a guilty pleasure of mine. In the interview, Hale opens up (apparently for the first time) about the eating disorder she struggled with as a teenager:

But behind the scenes, Lucy developed a dangerous habit all too common among young starlets. ‘I’ve never really talked about this, but I would go days without eating. Or maybe I’d have some fruit and then go to the gym for three hours. I knew I had a problem,’ Lucy says of the issue that plagued her for two years. Luckily, unlike some actresses who have been unable to escape the downward slide, Lucy had the strength to turn herself around. ‘It was a gradual process, but I changed myself,’ she says.

Except for the following paragraph, in which Hale talks about cutting damaging friendships out of her life, no other details are given about how she recovered from her eating disorder, and I won’t assume. However she did it, it’s awesome and she deserves to feel great about having accomplished that.

However, the Cosmo writer takes it a bit further with this sentence: “Luckily, unlike some actresses who have been unable to escape the downward slide, Lucy had the strength to turn herself around.”

Wait…what? So people who succumb to the “downward slide” of eating disorders, or who need professional help to recover, just lack the “strength” that Hale has?

Obviously, I disagree.

If Hale really did recover without any professional help–which, again, she does not make that clear–there are many potential reasons for that. Perhaps she had a great support system of friends and family. Maybe she’s not genetically predisposed to eating disorders. Maybe her parents have healthy eating habits that they were able to model for her. She might’ve not had as serious a case as others do. Or perhaps she just got lucky.

None of this means that actresses who are “unable to escape the downward slide” have any less “strength” than Hale did. It means, probably, that they had different circumstances. Different lives.

So, how does one talk about people who have recovered from mental illness on their own without putting down those who cannot? My answer would be, by not comparing them to each other. Hale recovered? That’s awesome. Another actress didn’t? That’s a tragedy, and she deserves help and support. Their illnesses are not comparable, even if they happen to share the same name.

As Leo Tolstoy said, unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way. Similarly, people who suffer from mental illness all do so in their own way. Just because one recovers and another does not doesn’t mean that one has more “strength” than the other.

P.S. Before anybody goes all “but it’s just Cosmo, who cares!”, Cosmo has a circulation of over 3 million in the United States and is also distributed in over 100 other countries in 32 languages. Readers of this blog probably think Cosmo is silly and not something to be taken seriously (which it’s not), but the truth is that many people around the world probably get most of their information about things like mental illness from media like this. So it’s definitely worth examining and critiquing.

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The Case Against Celebrity Gossip

Credit: jezebel.com

Celebrity gossip bothers me.

I think it’s both interesting and sad how we assume that accomplished, well-known people exist for our consumption. That is, we not only consume the work they produce; we consume their lives themselves.

We expect them to be perfect and demand apologies when they fail, but we also gleefully feed on the news of their failures, perhaps encouraging them to fail if they want to be noticed.

When celebrities fight back against the culture of gossip and paparazzi, as they often do, we claim that by being so famous and “putting themselves out there,” they “deserve” the stalking, the intrusion of privacy, the destructive rumors and exposés, all of it.

It is, if you think about it, a victim-blaming sort of mindset.

And so, things that are absolutely unacceptable and legally punishable when done to an “ordinary” private citizen are just a day in the life of a celebrity.

I understand and uneasily accept that as long as there’s a market for celebrity gossip, tabloids will continue to exist. I think the onus is more on the public to learn that violating people’s privacy is wrong than on tabloids to willingly shut themselves down. However, I do reserve a harsher judgment for media outlets that trade in celebrity gossip while simultaneously branding themselves as progressive–or, worse, feminist.

Jezebel is a blog that I read loyally because it often (not always) features great writing and brings things to my attention that I may not have learned about otherwise. I read it with the understanding that the writing is often unnecessarily snarky and dismissive (the pot calling the kettle black, I know), and that some of the posts are best fact-checked elsewhere.

I know this about Jezebel, and I accept it. What I have more difficulty accepting, though, is that the same site that provides women with vital information about terrible politicians, interesting perspectives on sex and dating, and summaries of important research…also publishes things like this. And this, and this, and even more disgustingly, this.

It’s fashionable these days to consume things “ironically”–pop music, bad television drama, Twilight and Fifty Shades. Celebrity gossip, too, falls into that category of things people like “ironically.” This, I think, is why you often see it on blogs like Jezebel. Perhaps people think that reading it alongside articles about institutionalized sexism somehow makes it better.

Some might disagree with this criticism of Jezebel because it does not explicitly label itself as a feminist blog. Perhaps that’s a fair point. However, whether or not it labels itself as such, it unquestionably has a feminist perspective, and more importantly, it’s ironic that some of the issues Jezebel criticizes in its more serious pieces–body snarking, fashion policing, slut shaming–are things that it does in its celebrity coverage. (This has been written about already.) Perhaps avoiding the “feminist” label is just a way for Jezebel’s writers and editors to cover celebrity gossip without feeling guilty.

But is it possible to consume celebrity gossip ethically? According to an article in this summer’s issue of Bitch magazine, yes. The article, called “Gossip Grrrl: Can Celebrity Gossip Ever Be Feminist?”, was written by media scholar Anne Helen Petersen (and is, unfortunately, not available online). Petersen acknowledges the issues with celebrity gossip, such as the fact that it’s a form of social policing and prescribes the ways in which people (especially women) are allowed to be. She writes, “In most celebrity coverage, the dichotomy is clear and consistent: men go on a bender, women go crazy. Men ripen, women decay.”

But the question Petersen ultimately answers in her piece is not the one that is posed in the title. Celebrity gossip itself is not feminist. In fact, as Petersen points out, is it explicitly antifeminist. But the act of consuming celebrity gossip is a different matter entirely.

According to Petersen, we should consume celebrity gossip while acknowledging the problems with it, examining our own reactions to it, and keeping its historical context in mind. She provides a personal anecdote about learning that Leonardo DiCaprio and Blake Lively were dating and feeling irrationally annoyed by it. However, instead of taking her reaction at face value, she examined it:

I don’t like that someone who “means” what DiCaprio means to me (the first heartthrob of my teenage years, Romeo + Juliet forever) is linked with someone who “means” what Lively does (inexperienced, inarticulate, lacking in talent). I can look at my reaction even more closely, understanding my frustration when handsome, talented, seemingly intelligent men my age persist in courting women far their junior who don’t seem to be their equals. Is my reaction necessarily fair? No. But unpacking my reaction to a romance between two celebrities helps me understand my own issues with men dating younger (beautiful, lovely-breasted) women. In short, mindfully consuming celebrity gossip helped me make sense of my own biases.

What I took away from this article is that there are ways to consume celebrity gossip intelligently and mindfully, while learning about ourselves and our society in the process.

However, merely reporting the gossip (and I use the term “reporting” loosely) is not the same thing at all.

I know the mental contortions that people who love celebrity gossip sometimes use to justify it. It’s just for fun. Not everything has to be all serious and political. I don’t support it financially, anyway. It would still exist even if I stopped consuming it. The celebs deserve it.

Not everything has to be all serious and political, but many of our choices do have serious and/or political ramifications. And I know it’s never pleasant to be confronted with the fact that something you love is problematic. I also know that most people who like celebrity gossip have little interest in consuming it the way that Petersen describes.

But I think that refusing to participate in the invasion of another person’s privacy is more important than a few minutes of entertainment. Sorry, but I do.

Chet Hanks, Victim Blaming, and the “Weakness” of Suicide

Chet Hanks, son of Tom Hanks and a student here at Northwestern, has this to say about victims of bullying:

Chet's tweet: "Ayo I don't condone bullying but anyone who offs themselves cuz they got picked on is weak."

Credit: Gawker

And then, perhaps in response to people who responded to him (including yours truly), Chet tweeted these followups:

“I say real shit and I always speak my mind if you don’t like it I could give a fuck less.”

“Lol…Haters: I am sorry I do not cater to your demographic: shlubby dudes that don’t get laid enough it’s ok go back to your Internet porn”

“G’head check my feed, all the people hatin are mediocre Lames and cute girls show me love #whatdoesthattellyou

How mature.

Sometimes I wish someone would invent a technology that allows you to connect to someone else’s brain and actually feel what they feel. Because language is a poor substitute.

Maybe if we had such a technology, people would finally understand that mental illness and suicide do not happen to people because they are “weak.”

However, since we don’t have such a technology, the best we can do is educate ourselves about other people, something that college provides a great opportunity to do. It’s too bad that Chet Hanks seems not to be taking advantage of it.

Some of the comments on the Gawker piece I linked to, while generally dismissive of Chet Hanks, are hardly any better:

His expression of emotion is misguided and a bit douche-y, but I second the sentiment. Suicide is a horrible option to exercise as a bullying deterrent. It’s a permanent solution to a potentially temporary problem. It exchanges the pain you feel for the pain of those around you who love you and is essentially a selfish act.
Suicide is selfish and hurts people who care about you, but calling people who are potentially thinking about doing it weak is only going to make things worse. He could have expressed this sentiment in a way that was constructive and helped people, instead of highlighting what an asshat he is.

It’s probably true that some people are psychologically more susceptible to suicide than others, but that difference has nothing to do with “strength” or “weakness.” It also has nothing to do with “willpower” and “selfishness.” To put it broadly, suicide is what happens when a person no longer wants to live–which isn’t necessarily the same thing as wanting to die.

Tragically, most people who commit suicide do so at least in part because they don’t feel like anyone will miss them, and contrary to what the self-righteous commenters above seem to think, not everyone does have friends or family who care about them. It’s also worth noting that, with the exception of people like me who were bullied for being nerdy, kids who get bullied tend to already be marginalized by society in numerous ways–because of fatness or ugliness, mental or physical disability, perceived or real homosexuality, noncompliance with gender roles, and so on. Sometimes, these are the very children who are least likely to have supportive parents, siblings, teachers, and friends cheering them on through their trials.

What Chet seems to miss is that the causal relationship between bullying and suicide isn’t just that a kid goes to school one day and gets called a fag and comes home and tries to kill himself. Bullying is almost never a one-time thing; it can continue over months or years. It’s a constant wearing down of an individual’s self-worth and belief that he/she belongs in this world. Bullies don’t simply call you names and beat you up–they convince you that nobody wants you here.

While supportive friends and family can alleviate these tragic effects somewhat, as I mentioned, not everyone has supportive friends and family. And even if they do, that may not be enough. Children don’t have the freedom that adults have–they’re completely powerless to escape the situation by moving or dropping out of school. The only recourse they generally have is telling an authority figure at school, and that tends to do nothing at best or backfire at worst.

But of course, pretty much everyone reading this blog probably already knows all that. What they probably don’t know is how it actually feels to seriously consider suicide, and how little it has to do with concepts like “weakness” and “selfishness.” If you’d like to hear about it from someone who knows of what she speaks, feel free to ask me personally. Otherwise, I’d recommend this amazing book.

After we read about Chet’s tweet, some of my friends and I started talking about the whole concept of victim blaming and how pervasive it is in our society. Although it’s usually talked about in the context of sexual assault, there really isn’t a single shitty human experience that doesn’t routinely get blamed on its victims: mental illness, bullying, poverty, racism, sexual harassment, you name it. If you have depression, it’s because you’re just not looking on the bright side of life. If you’re getting bullied, it’s because you stick out too much or “react” too much. If you’re poor, it’s because you’re too lazy to get a job. If you’re fat, it’s because you eat crap and don’t exercise. If you feel discriminated against, it’s because you’re “too sensitive.” If you’re getting harassed on the street, your skirt’s too short. And so on and so forth.

(In fact, as Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her brilliant book Bright-sided, even cancer, that ultimate of tragedies, is increasingly getting blamed on its victims. Why? Because they didn’t “think positively” enough.)

Sometimes, it’s really difficult and unpleasant to acknowledge the fact that, even in our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, when-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way sort of culture, sometimes life just screws people. Sometimes it just does.

It’s easier to blame the victim than to make the sort of cultural changes we would need to make sure that people get screwed over as little as possible. Much easier than to figure out how to teach compassion to kids, how to eradicate racism, how to get people to realize that there’s never an excuse for raping people.

But just because we may not yet know how to do those things does not mean we should just throw up our hands and say, “Yeah well, if they off themselves, it’s just cuz they’re weak.”

The more I study psychology, bullying, and the many challenges faced by people that society continually marginalizes, the more I think: If only it were that simple.

*edit* Also, I’m going to try really hard to believe that underneath all that idiocy is some actual intelligence, and that that’s why Chet Hanks got into this school–not because of who his father is.

And, here’s an awesome blog post about this from my friend Derrick.

Mental Illness as a Spectator Sport

Step right up, ladies and gents, see the amazing inhuman hoarders here!

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.