Someone recently told me about a website that is attempting to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness by sharing the stories and experiences of people living with mental health difficulties, as well the stories of the loved ones who support them. Those of you who know me know this is an issue close to my heart, so I took a look, hoping it would be another resource for education and awareness.
The main page of the site includes video of a public service announcement featuring a Hollywood celebrity, and there are several other video testimonials from people featured in the psa. In the testimonials the person who has or has been treated for a mental health condition talks about his or her experiences, and their friend or relative sits next to the person and shares what it’s been like to know and care about someone with mental health difficulties.
In theory, this is a really good idea. The stigma surrounding mental trauma and non-neurotypical brain conditions is a huge barrier to full emotional health. When people are unable to talk about their condition for fear of being ostracized, or losing a job, or being kicked out of housing, or losing custody of a child, or coerced into treatment regimens they don’t consent to “for their own good,” the silence they are forced into only exacerbates their suffering. It cuts them off from potential sources of support. [And let me be very clear that the fears listed above are not irrational and paranoid: they are very real occurrences; I’ve experienced a couple myself.]
I’m all for people taking steps to eradicate the stigma of having a mental illness or non-neurotypical condition, and I think it’s great to have allies in this struggle. So for the most part, the goal of the website is a decent one, and I was happy to see that the site also contains good information for people just starting out in trying to understand what it means to have a mental health condition that can impair one’s day to day quality of life.
I can’t get past the main visual effect used in the psa and video testimonials. I thought perhaps I was being overly critical, but I’ve watched it on different occasions, trying to keep an open mind and view it from an “objective” academic lens, and it still bothers me a great deal.
The visual image has to do with t-shirts the people are wearing in the public service announcement, and in my opinion the effect they create stands to cancel out the rest of the helpful information on the website.
In the psa, people are organized into pairs, and we see them in a classic Grand Central Station bustling crowd scene. Each person featured is wearing a white t-shirt: the person who is the loved one or family member wears a shirt with a word or phrase that describes their relationship to the person with the mental health condition (“mom,” “sister,” “cousin”). So far so good. This is a common way to raise awareness about an issue that many people may only know about in the abstract (for example, I once knew next to nothing about adrenal disorders, and it wasn’t until a family member was diagnosed with one that it became very real to me). Having a direct relational connection like that is a compelling way to draw people in, since relationship is one of the most basic things that define us as human beings. In the case of the allies in the psa, the shirts they wear define them as Real People who have a Real Concern about someone close to them, and this sends the message that it’s important to pay attention to their concern.
In contrast, consider what the label on the other t-shirt says. It truly is a label, in the worst sense of that word. The person with the mental health condition wears a shirt that has their diagnosis printed on it. “depression.” “post traumatic stress disorder.” “bipolar.” Their loved one gets to be a human being with an identity, and they get to be a disease.
The one pairing that bothered me the most was this couple: take a look at what’s on their respective shirts in this image. Not knowing anything else about them, think about the message it conveys. Look who gets to be the “better half.” Certainly not the person with depression. [note: in the video segments we find out that they both have mental health conditions and speak of how they’re able to support one another and better relate to the other. That’s good to hear. But my point remains: seeing a “better half” shirt in contrast to the other person’s label says a lot about how little we value someone when their symptoms are supposedly impairing them or making them less than “normal.” The implication: if you have depression, you don’t measure up, other people are “better” than you].
I tried contacting the organization several weeks ago to find out more about the ad campaign and who came up with the t-shirt concept, but haven’t received a reply. Whether the visual concept was conceived of by individuals who live with mental health conditions, or by well-meaning but misguided professionals, my question is the same: Why do the allies get to be sisters and cousins and “better halves” and, by extension, multidimensional people, and the others get labeled as their disease? I don’t understand how that helps reduce the stigma.
The closing shot of the psa is of all of the people featured, with each of their t-shirts magically changing into “normal” clothes with no labels. I say it’s too little, too late. Not to mention that in the follow-up interview videos featured on the main page, every person is back to wearing the label shirts. And, not only that, but now, says the pop-up box sliding across the main page, you too can own your very own t-shirt! For $20 you too can be a disease–yes, that’s right, they’re only selling shirts with the mental illness labels on them.
If I came across as bitter in that last paragraph, well, it’s because I am. I am someone who lives with chronic mental health difficulties, and while I can keep a detached sociological stance up to a point when analyzing culture, I have my limits. I can’t not take this kind of thing personally, and it’s misguided benevolence like this that frustrates me the most. I’ve worn my share of slogan t-shirts, and seen some clever ways to use slogan shirts to get people to rethink their assumptions. But I would not wear a slogan shirt like the ones in the psa. I am not a disease. I am a real person, and I am so much more than my diagnosis.
The impression I get from the website is that the organization and ad campaign are the product of well-meaning individuals, but individuals who didn’t fully think through the ways in which a single image can convey so much meaning, for good or for harm. I want to be very clear that I am not criticizing the people who came forward to tell their story: publicly “outing” oneself as a person with a mental health condition is a very brave act, and they all deserve huge respect for that. I just wish more thought had gone into the overall ramifications of seeing people labeled in such a way.