We face a dilemma anytime the topic of mental illness is brought up. Since it’s often viewed as something shameful that needs to be hidden, silence usually prevails. This stigma does nothing but hurt those who are affected, forcing them to suffer quietly until they reach the breaking point, and often that’s far too late.
While society needs to stop avoiding the conversation surrounding mental illness, it’s also critical that we take note of the few times it’s openly mentioned. Of course we must speak up, but when we do we must be careful with our words. When psychological disorders are discussed there’s a tendency to romanticize them, warping and misrepresenting the realities of those with said problems.
Case in point: Sylvia Plath. A talented writer who published several books of poetry and prose that have been analyzed by scholars for decades, we don’t often see her that way. Instead, when most hear her name they imagine two pale legs sticking out from the oven where she killed herself. Plath’s suicide has been immortalized, an infamous footnote that will always plague her.
The public perception of Sylvia Plath, while unnerving, is extremely common. It’s the same mentality that says there’s a connection between psychosis and genius. The one that drives depression’s poster children to be thin, white girls in black-and-white photos. The one that paints personality disorders as quirks and not debilitating illnesses. The one that insists that those scars are a sign of beauty, not pain. Even though neuroatypical people have existed for thousands of years, hardly anyone feels compelled to portray us accurately.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest offenders is Hollywood. Take the upcoming film Suicide Squad for instance. Already knowing that one of the main characters had a mental illness, I expected some degree of insensitivity. My assumptions were confirmed as soon as I saw the trailer, which shows “crazy” Harley Quinn quipping about hearing voices in her head. As I write this I’m preparing myself for the upcoming months that will no doubt feature people dressing up as Harley and proudly proclaiming their insanity.
As someone who suffers from mental illness, it has taken me several years to accept that wherever I go my disorders will follow. Coping with this on the daily basis is already difficult enough. To see something that has consumed a good part of my life being treated so casually, reduced to nothing more than an ill-conceived stereotype, is immensely painful. Society is slowly starting to look mental illness straight in the face. What it sees should not be through rose-colored glasses, but the reality that many live with everyday.