The glamorization of mental illness

Sam West

We’ve reached an interesting time in terms of the way the mentally ill are perceived in the wider society. Awareness of mental illness has never been greater, and people suffering from the effects of psychological disorders have never been more accepted. However, the widespread general knowledge about psychiatry has led to a strange and problematic trend: the glamorization and glorification of mental illness.

Modern police procedural shows often feature mentally ill characters, whose disorders somehow make them better detectives. In movies, mental illness is now usually portrayed as a fun quirk or a sexy personality trait that makes a character seem deep and truly in touch with the pain of living.

I’m beyond glad that the mentally ill are no longer portrayed as inhuman and dangerous. But making them seem preternaturally gifted or quirky and deep is almost as stupid and unrealistic. And it affects the way people talk and think about psychological disorders.

No one is ever just “sad” anymore. No normal person has a bad day – they’re “depressed.” And no one’s ever “neat.” If they like to keep a clean car, they’re “OCD,” even though they probably don’t know what OCD is and may have never met an OCD person in their life.

This epidemic of self-diagnosis doesn’t make any sense to me. I guess people think pretending to be neurotic is fashionable. The truth is, anyone who has actually ever struggled with a mental illness wants to be defined by anything but their disease. They want to forget they have a problem, and just be a person.

I have generalized anxiety disorder, basically the most mild and easy to treat mental illness. It’s the psychological equivalent of chronic back pain – annoying, but I don’t let it affect my life in any way. So I don’t have much place personally to complain about the way people 
glamorize disorder.

I wrote this column because many people in my family aren’t as lucky. They have more serious and difficult problems. They live full lives in spite of their struggles, and they don’t let a glitch in brain chemistry define them. I couldn’t be more proud to be related to them. They’re the ones who don’t deserve to hear some jerk say he’s depressed when he’s trying to sound deep.

The media needs to make realistic mentally ill characters who sometimes struggle and sometimes succeed and sometimes fall on their ass, just like everyone else. And people need to stop self-diagnosing. If you think you have a problem, go see a psychiatrist or counselor, don’t take it upon yourself to determine you have a certain disorder based on your own (probably incorrect) assumption about what it is.

Let’s stop with everyone being fashionably neurotic. Pretending to be sick doesn’t make you special.

Sam West is a junior majoring in economics. He is the Assistant Culture Editor of The Crimson White.