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.”