Another Facebook status was making the rounds today, this time asking us to list seven people with roles in a ‘mental hospital.’ It isn’t the first, only, or last time a viral status will appear on my newsfeed that is offensive – but what shocked me today was several friends I expected more from filled in names and posted it. What exactly is it about mental illness that leaves it with a lingering humor, or more precisely a humor based in stigma? How come otherwise aware and progressive activists, social workers, people of faith, and advocates for the marginalized are all fine laughing at the mentally ill?
Two decades of experience with my own mental health issues means I cannot but conclude that there is great humor in mental illness. Coping with pain, or worse the unknown, is sometimes only possible through humor and a recognition of how ludicrous a moment might be. Laughter scales the walls of mania or depression and eases the mental anguish within me. This humor is not only good (even if dark), it is something I recommend to anyone struggling personally or with a loved one afflicted by mental illness.
Yet, the Facebook status and general comedy around mental illness is not the positive, therapeutic kind. It is the nasty, stereotypical kind that relies on ignorance of mental health and decades old images of the ‘crazy’ people interned in psychiatric wards worthy of Nurse Ratched. Who exactly is listed in this particular status?
Well, there’s the roommate (the poster is considered mentally ill, too); there’s the window licker and the escapee; the naked person and the one “yelling nonsense about clowns”; there’s even the person you went crazy with whatever that means. Oh, and there’s a doctor thrown in for good measure. We’re all then instructed to copy/paste this, add our own seven friends, and “share the craziness.”
You may have surmised I did none of the above. I am fed up with mental illness being an acceptable target of derogatory humor. The same circles who would object to anything racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-poor, anti-migrant, anti-…you understand (I should note, I would totally object to these too) – are posting statuses targeting the mentally ill as if it’s no big deal. To quote Vice President Biden, it’s a “Big F–kin’ Deal.”
The reality is, there is too much truth in this Facebook status. Of a random sampling of seven friends, we’re all likely to get a couple in there who have struggled themselves with mental health and a couple more who have firsthand experience with illness’ ravages on friends and families. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (definitely check them out) estimates that 1 in 4 Americans suffer from mental illness in a given year, which is about 61.5 million people.
If you’re reading this in a public place, look around for a moment and think about that 1 in 4 statistic. Mental illness, and the lack of proper healthcare around it, leads to and compounds a host of injustices prevalent in our society that so many of my Facebook friends are fighting against.
Mental health is a matter of our loved ones, and the ones we love as God’s children we may not know – who then are we ready to call the “naked one” or the “window licker” or the one “yelling nonsense about clowns”? Is it really all that humorous to list our friends aside these labels, when they may suffer in reality from afflictions that make getting out of bed a Herculean feat?
Shouldn’t we instead celebrate the victories of those who are learning to live, and thrive, amid a chronic mental illness or overcome an addiction? Shouldn’t we become involved in mental health care and advocacy, where we can acknowledge the true humor minds like mine provide?
If you want to make a Facebook status go viral, let us all make it the one that will pull my bipolar disorder and those illnesses of millions others out of the shadows, stripping them of stigma and opening a policy discussion on how to heal a broken society!