The headline is far less surprising than our cultural reaction: Hayden Panettiere, TV star and fairly new mom, entered treatment last week for postpartum depression. And no one seems to find it funny.
This is great news. Granted, admitting to postpartum depression is different from publicly displaying symptoms of untreated mental illness, which presents more of a temptation to those who love to laugh at the outrageous behavior of celebrities or ridicule people in their weakest moments. But this feels like progress to me.
After all, we do have a long history of skewering people whose mental health breaks down. Remember Jason Russell? In 2012 the director of the Kony 2012 video suffered a psychotic episode “brought on by extreme exhaustion, stress and dehydration.” Public reaction to the incident elicited echoes of a common pattern in public life: the voyeuristic and cruel response to the public breakdown, usually followed by shame, humiliation, attempts at damage control, and a hospital stay for “exhaustion.” In recent decades, in our society, few things have been considered as shameful as mental illness. Consider the cases of Demi Moore, Britney Spears, Charlie Sheen, and Mariah Carey. I see the reaction to Panettiere’s illness as one of many signs that things are changing–at least for public figures. If celebrities are publicly skewered for their vulnerabilities, imagine how ordinary citizens have been treated.
I should know. My mom has the disorder schizophrenia. After she began to have full-scale breakdowns—some of them public—when I was 14, I carried with me the sense that I was “infected” by association, and I was deeply scarred by the rejection and potential for rejection I felt in society at large and in the church. This is a kind of suffering you just aren’t supposed to talk about. And because of the general lack of conversation about mental illness, for decades my family and I felt very much alone in our suffering.
People with mental illness are the butt of jokes, the subjects of terrifying movies and amusement park rides, and sources of entertainment that seem to assume they are mythical creatures—like leprechauns and unicorns—so no one should be offended.
While the culture at large is making progress, I see it happening in the church too–although at a slower pace. The church’s response to mental illness is typically silence—a silence that is tantamount to complicity in the world’s rejection of the most vulnerable among us, that speaks volumes about the weakness of our faith in the face of suffering. When the church is not silent, it often condemns, suggesting people need exorcism or simply more faith, and denying people’s need for legitimate medical intervention to ease their suffering and help them function as the people God made them to be.
In any given year, 20-25 percent of the adult U.S. population is affected by a diagnosable mental illness. And over the course of a lifetime, the numbers are much higher. This is roughly equal to the total percentage of people diagnosed with cancer each year, those living with heart disease, people infected with HIV and AIDS, and those afflicted with diabetes—combined! We have largely erased the stigma associated with these and other illnesses, but we can’t seem to overcome the stigma that curses those whose illnesses and disorders happen to attack the brain.
Stigma means immediate, irrational rejection of people with mental illness. They are shamed, labeled, stereotyped, misunderstood, mocked, and dismissed. Stigma keeps people isolated, away from treatment, and hidden away in poorly funded hospitals and prison cells—America’s highest-population “treatment centers” for people with mental illness.
Why do we perpetuate this stigma, joke about people with mental illness, titillate ourselves with terrifying images of them, mock them sadistically, or pretend they don’t exist? Somewhere in ourselves, we all know we see in them a reflection of who we could be—and that, I think, is what really scares us. By dehumanizing people with mental illness, we distance them from ourselves and our experiences and make ourselves feel safer. The less real they seem, the less we feel we have the potential to suffer similarly. But the truth is, our brains are as vulnerable to disease and disorder as the rest of our bodies, and in this age of relentless stress, impossible expectations, and information overload, perhaps we are more vulnerable than ever. These illnesses strike both predictably and randomly, and none of us is immune.
In writing a book on this subject, Troubled Minds, I was amazed at how many shared their own stories (sometimes in hushed voices) as soon as they heard about my project. How many people talked about the shame and humiliation of being diagnosed with an illness, then suffering discrimination at work, in their friendships, and in their churches.
If anyone should lead the way on loving society’s most vulnerable, it’s the church. We who are called to serve “the least of these” as if we were serving Jesus (Matthew 25:40). As living temples carrying God’s presence in this world, we must allow his light to shine out from us and infiltrate the darkness that surrounds so many people.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.