Is “popular” mental illness a bad thing? – Anna Spargo-Ryan

Is “popular” mental illness a bad thing?

Is “popular” mental illness a bad thing?

Earlier today I was reading this piece from Annie Stevens on Daily Life.

I say ‘reading’, but I mean ‘shouting at’.

I think I probably understand her point. Mental illness has been popularised by shows like Girls and maybe United States of Tara and even Offspring.

I’ve talked before about how I don’t mind if someone exaggerates (or even fakes) a mental illness, if it means that people are at least having conversations about it. I don’t believe that portrayals of mild (or “functional”, as per the article) anxiety in popular culture could dilute wider understanding of them to the detriment of those with anxiety disorders.

Maybe people on the outside think we’re having a mental illness competition. You’re not as anxious as me. You’re not as detached from reality as me. I’ve attempted suicide eight different ways and you’ve only tried six. Evidently the severity of my illness will be diluted by other people with their pretend anxiety. I should be outraged by people saying “I’m anxious” when actually I am anxious. You’re not anxious! I am! You think you know what anxiety is? WELL YOU DON’T.

Anxiety in particular has huge variance in its manifestation: phobias, irrationalities, lack of control, detachment, fear, panic. Yesterday I literally drove to the supermarket one tree at a time (“Now drive to the next tree”) because I was so afraid, and yet I don’t begrudge anyone the right to feel anxious and to voice that feeling.

So why is the media outraged on my behalf?

This is semantics. “Anxious” means uneasy or nervous. If you’re afraid to get on a plane, you’re anxious. If your heart is racing because you need to give a speech in front of a thousand people, you’re anxious. If you can’t remember your name or where you live because your brain has packed up and left, you’re anxious. Using this word–this apt word–to describe these feelings does not make any of them less legitimate. It does not make my personal pain any greater, or detract from the things I am experiencing.

Perhaps it helps me to go to someone and say, “Actually, I’m not sure I’m up to that right this minute, I’m feeling quite anxious.” and the other person says, “I understand, my sister/mother/friend/daughter feels like that too sometimes.” They don’t need to know the ins and outs of my particular breed of anxiety; they just need to have some point of reference for “anxiety” as an actual thing that people experience, whether it is functional or not.

A man down the street has a twisted ankle. He says “Far out, my ankle really hurts!” And the lady across the road has a broken leg. She stands out on her nature strip and shouts to the man: “You don’t even deserve to say that your ankle hurts until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes!” That’s how it happens, right? The woman with the broken leg’s pain is directly (and negatively) affected by the man with the sore ankle, yes?

Or maybe what they’re both saying is, “It’s lucky everyone is aware that legs can hurt and we should try to mend them when they are broken.”

  • Laura Greaves

    April 2, 2013 at 9:41 pm Reply

    Great post, Anna. It’s like the Buddhists say (and I may be paraphrasing here), it’s not about whether you’re suffering more or less than the other guy, you’re still suffering. What we do about that – how we make it better – is the point, not who has the monopoly on pain. Open discussion is always a good thing.

  • Sarah

    April 3, 2013 at 7:37 am Reply

    I had lunch yesterday with some friends who are developing a project around grief and how we can introduce new conversations about it to kids. We were talking about the hierarchy of grief that pops up amongst people who have suffered traumatic losses – looking for ways to point out whose grief is worse because of the way or method in which people died. Its a little like the way we trivialise mental ill health – how pop culture lets us laugh at it but out on the street its not openly discussed. There is a hierarchy around how serious or legitimite it is. Apparently broken legs are easier to seek help for – they provide people with evidence of whats broken.
    I like this Anna – can you also do one about drinking and the way we romanticise that. Ta x

  • Caroline

    April 3, 2013 at 10:19 am Reply

    I, too, was shouting at that piece. I worry that we are losing our ability to empathise with people in difficult situations if they don’t match up to our ‘rule’ on what is, or isn’t mental illness/disability/poverty.

  • Kylie C

    April 3, 2013 at 10:28 am Reply

    Thank you Anna for this post. I have, through various stages of my life, dealt with this so-called ‘functional’ anxiety. I was still capable of going to work and completing daily tasks, but I had constant heart palpitations, day and night. After this was diagnosed as ‘nothing more than anxiety’ by a GP and heart specialist, my (micro)manager at the time told me that I was taking my health too seriously. I was in that job for 9 years before I realised that it (and my manager) was the main contributor to my anxiety and that I needed to get out, and fast.

    I ‘escaped’ 2 years ago to a job I thought I’d hate. It turns out the job is wonderful because I’m surrounded by people who give me respect and autonomy. I still have my anxious moments (like when I have to make a phone call), but, largely, it has subsided. However, that doesn’t mean that what I experienced, even temporarily, wasn’t valid or ‘real’. All anxiety is real to the person experiencing it.

    This is a fabulous post. :)

  • Kylez @ A Study in Contradictions

    April 3, 2013 at 11:58 am Reply

    “Or maybe what they’re both saying is, “It’s lucky everyone is aware that legs can hurt and we should try to mend them when they are broken.””


  • Torre – Fearful Adventurer

    April 3, 2013 at 4:26 pm Reply

    Meagher makes startling, irresponsible generalisations, like: “it is rare to see a truly anxious person talking about their anxiety.” Because all people with anxiety are exactly the same? Um… what?

    Methinks that Meagher might just be trying to find an excuse to tighten the purse strings on those expensive Mental Health Plans that every goddamn hipster is trying to mooch from their GP. Because, you know, getting free therapy is, like, so seriously rad, bitches. And by the way, your anxiety totally matches your purse!

  • karen @ the rhythm method

    April 3, 2013 at 4:37 pm Reply

    I enjoyed its ‘distant intimacy’ in dealing with a much abused term. People have always been nervous – in fact it’s a major part of how we survive in the world. At the moment it is totally in vogue, and for me, this article put this into perspective.
    I was diagnosed with GAD two years ago, and funnily enough, I didn’t fully see how anxious I was until I wasn’t anxious as much. I actually was convinced I had cancer at that time – it wasn’t cancer, just GAD.
    I still have anxiety on varying levels, but there is a tipping point where I know I am either getting on with stuff and coping with the feelings, or it is all turning to shit. I need to know that place intimately, because it’s easy for me to just dismiss my own feelings, even when it feels like the world is ending. I think it’s important to keep perspective, and I feel like Stevens was trying to encourage this kind of perspective in people who could relate, rather than encouraging people to dismiss anxiety in its entirety. Perhaps your concern is directed at attitudes within the general public, rather than the anxious people themselves? I wouldn’t worry, only anxious people click on links about anxiety anyway! (Joke … but not really). x

  • karen @ the rhythm method

    April 3, 2013 at 4:48 pm Reply

    Sorry, one more thing: when my anxiety is high, I can’t even fold washing let alone speak or write about it. I think Meagher’s self-diagnosis of anxiety rings true. The real source of my anxiety is dark, sometimes so dark I can’t see it at all. I see it most clearly when I have to step up or make a life changing decision and I find myself refusing to leave the pantry.

  • Vicky

    April 7, 2013 at 10:29 am Reply

    I wasn’t going to click on the link to that article. I’m very firmly situated in your camp of thinking.

    I decided I needed to have a balanced view, so clicked on the link… Frig I wish I hadn’t. Now I’m cranky.

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