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While perusing Facebook, I came across a powerful response to an issue that too many of us take part in: viewing mental illness as a form of entertainment. Sam Dylan Finch, a freelance writer and queer activist living in San Francisco, noticed the stark contrast between how we regard those who live in the public eye with mental illness and those who have lived with it in the past. Mr. Finch cites two widely-known examples: Amanda Bynes and Robin Williams.
Here’s the link to Sam Dylan Finch’s article:
Finch wrote his article after receiving numerous comments from readers asking why he never mentioned Bynes in his work after her public meltdown on Twitter. His response was perfect: “I don’t believe that when [celebrities] have very human and very difficult struggles, I should capitalize on those things by writing an article… I believe they are deserving of privacy and respect, by virtue of their being people.”
While Finch’s message deals primarily with how we, as a society, view the challenges celebrities face when dealing with their mental health issues, his compassionate words should apply to us all.
Think about it.
How many of us gawked as Amanda Bynes sent out extremely odd Tweets for the world to read, at Britney Spears shaven head, or Lindsey Lohan’s countless stints in rehab? (As Finch points out, we operate on the assumption that these celebrities have mental health issues.) If you don’t pay attention to any of these people on e-news because you actually do not care about every meal a particular celebrity eats or every time they get new hair extensions, then good for you (but really, congrats on living your life in reality because, unfortunately, it’s a rare thing these days).
Consider how many times you’ve seen people talking to themselves on the street, or shouting something bizarre at you or at someone else as you passed them by. You may have even snickered, or made a snide comment to a friend (once again, because of the possibility that the person was mentally-ill, albeit a very likely one).
By contrast, when Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Whitney Houston died from suicide and overdose, we mourned them, revering them for their contributions to the entertainment industry, and for enriching our lives.
So, when does it end? At what point between someone’s display of painful mental health symptoms and the act of suicide should we begin to treat them with compassion and respect? Does it have to be after the fact?
Finch points out some frightening facts and statistics, the most alarming being this: 70.6% of those with co-occurring schizophrenia and bipolar disorder attempt suicide. He mentions this because Bynes has been accused of struggling with both. Using this to support his assertions, he believes that Bynes has an extremely challenging battle ahead of her, and that mocking her behavior only adds to her pain and difficulty, assuming that she does indeed suffer from both disorders.
After conducting my own search, I found that 25 to 50% of people living with bipolar disorder alone attempt suicide at least once.
Additionally, 90% of those who die as a result of suicide have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Once again, I will repeat Finch’s question: When will we stop basing our perspective on mental illness and its seriousness on whether or not someone has taken their own life? What if we didn’t mock the erratic behavior of celebrities and others living with mental health issues, but instead tried to ease their burden and prevent a suicide attempt?
Don’t you think that’s worthy of your respect and sympathy?
Emily Harris MSW is a former social work intern at The Painted Brain.