References to brain illness permeate our society, and not in a good way.
I’ve written before about the shameful ways that psychosis has been captured in movies, but it’s so much more than that. After you’ve watched a loved one struggle through a serious mental health crisis, you can’t help but notice these allusions everywhere.
Of course, it starts within our language itself. So many common idioms refer to brain malfunction that capturing them all would be difficult. You’re driving me crazy. The traffic is insane out there. That guy’s a total psycho. These phrases are ingrained into our everyday language at an early age, and we use them so frequently that they’ve become automatic. Trust me, live with someone suffering psychosis, and you’ll quickly realize that every single word must be carefully monitored.
Given this, it shouldn’t be surprising that these phrases make their way into our music. Again, so many song lyrics refer flippantly to brain illness that we’d be here for days trying to collect them all. I need a lover that won’t drive me crazy. I’m going off the rails on the crazy train. She drives me crazy, and I can’t help myself. Those are the first three that come to mind, and that’s only for the word crazy. We hear these kinds of lyrics nonstop, across every genre of music. We sing along, not even thinking about the message. Live with someone suffering psychosis, however, and you learn to keep the stereo off.
We find this in other forms of entertainment as well, whether it be movies or television or radio. For example, I listen to a lot of podcasts, and I happen to love Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. I find Conan hilarious, and he also seems smart, compassionate, and kind. But when he starts making fun of himself, saying that he didn’t take “his meds” that day or that he has “suffered a brain aneurism and lost his mind”—I have to turn it off. I can’t laugh like I used to, not after watching a loved one suffer through the horrible realities of acute psychosis.
I’m not trying to be a “snowflake” or ruin someone else’s good time, but collectively we should acknowledge that these references strengthen an already ingrained cultural stigma. If we made even a small attempt at doing better, it would go a long way in helping to correct such blatant discrimination. Unfortunately, we face literally centuries of societal prejudice that must be overcome. Look back over the past few decades and this becomes painfully clear.
For example, last night I watched the Batman movie from 1989—you know, the one with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton? I hadn’t seen it in twenty years, but I remembered loving it as a kid. Now, with more experienced eyes, I found it cringeworthy. Of course, the Joker’s character is labelled a psychotic, out of his mind and unpredictable. This trope makes him an obvious threat to society.
But it’s not just movies. During the pandemic, my son and I watched every episode of Seinfeld, which I hadn’t seen since the 1990’s. In several of them, Jerry and his gang refer to “Crazy Joe Davola” in derogatory ways. I remembered chuckling 25 years ago, surrounded by my college friends, but I couldn’t laugh anymore. Instead, I found myself worrying about Joe, wondering if someone close to him could help him find appropriate treatment.
In many ways, the fight against the mental health stigma is similar to other important movements in our culture today, like Black Lives Matter and MeToo. Some people take offense at these, assuming that they are targeting all white people or all men. Being a white man, I don’t feel this way at all. It’s more like an acknowledgement that our society has been wrong for a very long time; and instead of continuing to let destructive injustices go unheeded, we should strive to eliminate them. Seriously, is it that difficult to admit that racism and sexism exist and that we need to do better? Of course not. The same can be said for ending the stigma surrounding mental illness.
I’ve addressed before the power of celebrity taking a stand for mental health, and it’s an important start. But the deeply ingrained stuff—the songs, the movies, and the shows—these things will take time and conscious effort to correct. So, let’s start now. And remember what President Obama said about change: