So after last time’s sad poem about heartbreak and love (which I have since expanded into a five-part poem that I really rather like), we will move onto brighter and cheerier things today!
… is what I wish I could say. We won’t. We will, however, be addressing a topic that has really irked me for a while- one that I thought I would confine to tweets and irritated texts, but then realised spanned a wide enough scope to make a blog post about. Today, we will talk about the portrayal of mental illnesses- specifically, depression- and methods of treating them, in mainstream media.
I watch a lot of TV shows, prominent among which are Hannibal, and Boston Legal. I just watched the first episode of American Horror Story. And in films, I watched Silver Linings Playbook last year. All of these have had episodes or storylines related to mental illnesses. Now, as always, I can only offer a very personal perspective, but I can tell that what is being portrayed in these isn’t reality.
Let’s talk about the issue of psychoanalysis. I think it’s about time TV producers woke up and realised that psychoanalysis as a school of thought and a method of treatment has been abandoned since the 1970s. Watching these TV shows is like being stuck in a forty-year time warp- what has been proven to be non-scientific, subjective and horrifyingly vague, and therefore has been left behind, is still portrayed as the legitimate means of treatment. It’s frankly discrediting the whole field of psychology, and as a student and enthusiast of the subject, as well as someone who has actually been to therapy, it’s highly annoying to stomach. I can forgive or at least overlook Hannibal- psychological stuff aside, it’s a damn good show, and since the whole premise of the novel, the films and the show are based on psychoanalytical notions, I imagine that it is kind of impossible to separate the two. Of course, literature romanticises and warps psychology into psychoanalysis as much as TV. The two combined have contributed to a false notion of the whole field, especially the issue of therapy, in the general collective consciousness of viewers, and every time another TV show, such as American Horror Story, presents the same idea, it is that much more soundly reinforced. I was really disappointed with Boston Legal for falling in with the general line (repressed memories of child sexual abuse ad infinitum, ad nauseum)- I thought that one show, at least, would have abstained. Do writers even do any research into the stuff they put up as subplots? And if not, do they not realise the kind of power they wield over an audience?
Then there’s the whole issue of “curing” depression. Films tend to portray this unfailingly cheerful, extremely positive person who swoops down and magically lifts one up from the abyss and is always there for the person. Here’s a secret: depression can never be “cured”. It changes you permanently: the way you think, the way you behave, the very core of who you are. And that’s something that cannot and should not be erased. I’ve been on both sides of the fence- as a care giver and as someone who needs to be taken care of. I know how draining it can be look after someone with depression or anxiety disorders, not so much because it is a twenty-four hour job but because it is one that requires you to be there whenever the person needs you to be. I’ve been happy when friends, desperate, lonely and broken, have called and sought help, and I did not want to get involved because I did not want my happiness, which I have a tenuous grasp on anyway, to be tainted. They don’t talk about that. They don’t talk about how all that positivity and happiness can get sucked right out of one by simply being around the person, because it is a constant struggle against entrenched patterns of thought. They don’t talk about how hard and how long the fight against these patterns can be- and how, for the caregivers, it can prove to be too much, and quite understandably so; they don’t talk about what happens when these caretakers, one day, tired of fighting others’ demons, choose to leave.
The most accurate portrayal of depression that I have seen on film recently was in Steve McQueen’s “Shame”. The film ends without a resolution, without the main character being “cured” of his demons- but there is hope, in the end, as he confronts them. I understand that not all films can or ought to be as intense as “Shame”, or deal with subjects seriously all the time; I comprehend the need for a resolution in a rom-com. But surely, when this is the only scenario that gets propagated across pop culture, across various platforms of media, it just hammers in wrong notions about the white-knight-solution? I know it’s supposed to be all romantic and inspiring, but to someone who’s lived what the characters apparently lived through, it mostly just seems to be bullcrap. Surely a more tempered vision could be presented- not one of being “cured” but rather of being “restored”? I genuinely don’t think this is such a difficult task. Each journey is an inspiration and a message, even if it doesn’t live up to romantic ideals.
I don’t know what it is that motivates TV and films to passionately embrace admittedly outdated and largely false ideas- perhaps it’s that the public is more comfortable with them? After all, there’s this sort of fascination with psychological boundaries and disorders in people who have never experienced them- and most seem to view them with repulsed wonderment, bathed in a halo of dark glory. Well, let me tell you this- once you’ve been on the other side of the fence, the dark glamour, the romantic rose-tinted glasses dissipate, and all you remember is the pain. I’m tired and pissed off with all the clichés. I think it’s time to move on to more accurate portrayals that maintain a balance between reality and artistic liberty. It’s a fair enough demand, innit?