TV and Mental Health

I was watching a show today about Tuna fishing. I don't really care for the show itself, but it was on. Men on boats trying to reel in huge, sharklike tuna and the drama that ensues. On this particular episode one guy was excessively yelling at this other guy, a newbie who was described as a "gentle giant." The yelling was so loud fishermen on a different boat -- which seemed a ways away -- could hear it clearly.

Nothing special. Just a regular episode really. Then came the rub. "He's schizo," someone said about the erratic guy. "He's got ADD and ADHD. OCD." Another chimed in, "ACD, ABC.." "The whole alphabet."

Schizo. informal, offensive adj. n.

I paused but tried to reason past it; sailors, after all, have a long-held reputation for being foul-mouthed. And the show has plenty of evidence of that looseness of tongue -- with bleeped-out words throughout. This exchange, making fun of serious, bonafide diseases, was not edited in this way. I do not understand why.

Then came the rub. "He's schizo," someone said about the erratic guy. "He's got ADD and ADHD. OCD." Another chimed in, "ACD, ABC.." "The whole alphabet."

It's reality TV, I know, so part of the draw of the show is the human rawness, the real drama. This can include saying terrible things about people. Still, the Discovery Channel had a choice. They could have edited the entire conversation out or even shortened it. I don't know that they should have changed or not-used the footage, but I do wonder if and to what extent the blatant offensiveness was discussed before its release.

This is not unusual in TV, movies, and socially. Though it's become relatively taboo, I still run across people using the word "retard" to describe someone they disagree with. The word "schizophrenic" is used regularly to derogatorily refer to someone who cannot be trusted -- a liar. People use "bipolar" to describe all sorts of things, from the weather to their teaching strategies. Teaching strategies.

It seems every TV drama has had at least one character with multiple personalities who, unbeknownst to the kind and gentle half, goes around killing every expendable person in town. This is what people think schizophrenia is -- an uncontrollable murderer, a deranged lunatic, a practical demon. Someone with the disease may well be a killer, but so may anyone.

The word "schizophrenic" is used regularly to derogatorily refer to someone who cannot be trusted -- a liar. People use "bipolar" to describe all sorts of things, from the weather to their teaching strategies. Teaching strategies.

Obviously, some guys in a boat talking trash about some other guy in a boat makes little difference in anyone's life. If they were friends of mine in conversation with me, I would certainly correct them, but we need not censor the whole world. The problem lies in everything -- the fishermen, the school kids, the overused comedy gags. Slowly, over time we come to understand those with mental illnesses as inherently dangerous and weak. The image builds and is ingrained that they should be feared, belittled, and avoided socially. They are broken; have nothing to do with them.

Of course the stigma is being and has long-been fought -- and successfully to a degree. In one of my favorite films, Harvey from 1950, the dangerous lunatic stereotype is playfully countered throughout.

There are a couple TV shows I enjoy that also portray people with mental illness with all the complexity we deserve. The show "Leverage" immediately comes to mind with the character Parker being the chief sufferer. All of the characters, main and non-, have issues, and I always loved the fact that Parker was just one of them. She also progresses the most, though they all do, throughout the series, easing her apathy, isolationism, lack of trust, and severe anxiety. She needs the team, but it is not in a parasitic way. A similar analysis could be made for Nate, "the mastermind," easily.

"Elementary" is another remarkable show. It is a modern Sherlock Holmes story with Holmes as a recovering drug addict and sociopath. It is hard to describe in words how real and complex and beautiful this show has become. It is entirely about relationships -- with the dear friendship between Holmes and Joan Watson being chief among them. Watson (who is perfect as a woman) starts out as Holmes's "sober companion," a professional aid in his sobriety. Out of that what is probably the most beautiful, loving friendship I've ever seen on TV has been built. What stands out, about Watson especially, is the honesty and candor. The two relate to each other without lies, without covers; it is remarkable. Also, Holmes becomes a real friend not only to Watson, whom he loves, but to others in their circle, being vulnerable in ways he could never have been in the first seasons.

If you can access "Hounded" (Season 4 Ep. 16), watch it. The conversation between Sherlock and the ME is absolutely beautiful.