Thursday, April 2, 2009

Families in Fiction

It is estimated that nearly 1 in 5 American families deal with some form of mental illness (NAMI). From depression to schizophrenia to obsessive-compulsive disorder and beyond, these families must forge a difficult path, not only towards treatment and a cure, but through a variety of social stigmas attached to mental illness. Sadly, such social stigmas are most often perpetuated through inaccurate and insensitive portrayals in mass media, including fiction.

In her eye-opening study entitled “Myths of the ‘Crazy’ Client,” marriage and family therapist Karalee L. Bechtol, M.A., LMFT, exposes the fact that even interns and trainees entering the field of therapy are hesitant to treat mentally ill patients. Despite their training and desire to provide care, she discovers that “the views of participants who had never met someone with a mental illness are based on myths that society at large holds to be true and upon the media’s interpretation of the mentally ill” (Bechtol). Bechtol writes, “There is a tendency of mass media to treat mental illness as an object of ridicule, to use psychiatric terminology inaccurately, and to overuse slang and disrespectful terms for mental illness” (Bechtol).

Bechtol uses Otto F. Wahl’s book Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness to support her findings. In Wahl’s book, which won the 1996 Gustavus Myers Award for an Outstanding Book on Human Rights in North America, he asserts that he is “quite certain that public knowledge of mental illness does not come from the professional journals through which mental health professionals share their research and ideas with one another” (Wahl 2). Instead, Bechtol concludes, “It is more likely that the public’s knowledge of mental illnesses comes from sources closer to home, sources to which we all are exposed on a daily basis—namely the mass media, which includes television, movies, newspapers, literature and the internet” (Bechtol, emphasis added).

The National Alliance on Mental Illness - also know as NAMI - has long called for a change to the misrepresentations perpetuated by inaccurate media. “Stigma erodes confidence that mental disorders are real, treatable health conditions. We have allowed stigma and a now unwarranted sense of hopelessness to erect attitudinal, structural and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery. It is time to take these barriers down” (NAMI).

When author Julie Schumacher’s own daughter went through the nightmare of depression, the toughest barrier for her to take down was shame. In an interview on Minnesota Public Radio about her 2008 book, Black Box, which tells the story of a family dealing with a teen daughter’s depression, Schumacher said about writing something so close to home, “On the one hand, I wanted to value discretion and to honor my daughter’s privacy. On the other, I wanted to distrust discretion because it’s a close cousin to shame when it comes to mental illness. And I said to myself, and kept thinking, if my child were suffering from cancer, I would say to anyone, ‘Boy she’s having a hard time, she’s got an issue, she’s in the hospital, could you please come?’ and people would come. When you’re talking about hospitalization for mental illness, there’s just a pall of silence. It’s shame” (Schumacher).

Schumacher knew from her own experience that other teens at her daughter’s school might be hesitant to go pick up a pamphlet about depression from the school nurse, but they might be more likely to pick up a novel and relate to accurate depictions of depression in it. Carefully going over the details of the book with her daughter, and ultimately acquiring her permission before publishing it, Schumacher’s hope in writing the book was to use narrative to break social stigmas on depression and give meaning to their family’s experience. She said in a recent interview on the blog Mother Words: Mothers Who Write, “Black Box, because of its subject matter, is different from my other novels. I wrote much of it in a state of despair, feeling bitterly lonely — and the author’s note gave me a chance to say to someone reading the book, “You don’t need to feel this way. You aren’t the only one going through this.” I don’t want to pretend that books can solve serious problems, but I do think that in acknowledging and naming our experiences, they can make us feel less alone” (Mother Word).

Schumacher is doing her part as an author – and as a parent – to undo the stigma created by many years of inaccurate depictions of mental illness in media. And there are ways that each of us, in our own corners of the world, can do the same. For more than 50 years, May has been celebrated as Mental Health Month. This year you can mark the occasion by making yourself more aware of issues surrounding mental illness, and making a commitment to recognize inaccurate depictions in fiction for what they are: totally without merit. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, found at, has a wealth of useful articles on informing yourself, finding support, and taking action. We must understand that stigmas in fiction can only be perpetuated as long as we, as readers, are willing to accept them. If we arm ourselves with education and compassion, we can confront the misrepresentations we find in literature and say, “It just isn’t so.”

Bechtol, MA, LMFT, Karalee L. “Myths of the ‘Crazy’ Client.” PROGRESS: Family Systems Research and Therapy 9 (Summer 2000).

Mother Word: Mothers Who Write. “Black Box and an Interview with Julie Schumacher.” [post published on 23 March 2009]. Available from

National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI). About Mental Illness. [cited on March 21, 2009]. Available from
Schumacher, Julie. Interview with Kerri Miller. Midmorning. Minnesota Public Radio. 25 November 2008.

Wahl, PhD, Otto F. Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University, 1997.

No comments: