The fall 2019 Netflix TV season is here with plenty of new shows. Like many Nevadans, I occasionally like to ditch the season premieres to watch some mindless re-runs before I call it a night. Mostly, I like them. They are silly, substance-free and relaxing. Until I get to the episodes sporting characters with mental illness. Then I get annoyed.
In “Drop Dead Diva,” a long-running, legal comedy-drama that aired on Lifetime, the main character, Jane, is a high-powered attorney with a bipolar mother who occasionally appears on the show acting bizarre. In one episode she was arrested for assault, disorderly conduct and indecent exposure after wading in a public fountain – and fighting the police who pulled her out.
In an episode of the Emmy award winning “Grey’s Anatomy,” a steamy TV series about sex-crazed hospital surgeons in Seattle, a schizophrenic patient creates havoc wandering around the hospital. He nearly strangles a doctor, then falls down a flight of stairs, seriously injuring himself. Because he believes doctors are aliens, he refuses medical help, so a surgeon pricks her own finger to show him that her blood is red—and human.
Take it from me, as someone whose lived with bipolar disorder for 30 years, it’s difficult enough just living with a mental illness — coping with mood changes, expensive medication and finding proper medical care in a rural state severely short on mental health professionals.
It’s not helpful when the entertainment industry portrays characters with mental health issues going off the deep end. Sure, I’ve had my wacky moments. I’ve been called weird. But I’m also very creative. Who else in Nevada can brag having received a grant to write about circus clowns in Las Vegas?
But no, my mother doesn’t find out I’m in town by a collect call from the Washoe County jail. I’ve met plenty of other Nevadans from around the state, from Elko and Ely to Las Vegas and Carson City, with various mental health issues. Most just wish they could find a psychiatrist who is taking new patients.
Often mania gets portrayed in the media as someone who’s naturally “high,” who can’t sleep for days on end and instead of feeling exhausted and irritable like I usually do, feels incredibly focused and productive. Or just bizarre. Or if they’re a character like Jane’s mom on TV, they might be dressing up for Halloween in April.
Let’s get real.
Although bipolar disorder often worsens over time if untreated, most people with bipolar disorder can, with proper treatment, stabilize their mood swings and minimize other symptoms.
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If I had to give a 30-second elevator speech about what it feels like to have bipolar disorder, I’d talk about the difficulty finding medical care, the constant insurance battles, the burden of pre-existing conditions leading to outrageous insurance bills, discrimination, loneliness, and being scared and frustrated.
But I’d also describe myself as “passionate,” “talented,” “creative,” “funny,” empathetic.” There’s a lot of good things to say.
Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental illness which can cause people to have an abnormal view of reality due to hallucinations, delusions and extremely distorted thinking. But the murder scene in the hospital hallways of “Grey’s Anatomy” only serves to promote stereotypes that people with mental illness are dangerous.
I’m equally frustrated by the writers of “Drop Dead Diva” for linking police officers to scenes of mental illness when, in that episode, the mom was only in bare feet as she frolicked in the water. Her behavior may have seemed odd at the time, but hey, I’ve seen actual news reports of entire families across the globe taking refuge in local fountains to combat scorching heat waves. Nothing weird about that.
But what bothers me the most is that more often than not, TV and movie characters with a mental illness seem to rarely seek out help or take medications. They can never be like you and me. They seem to exhibit severe symptoms of mental illness, all the time. In “Drop Dead Diva” Jane is frequently embarrassed by her mother, who ends up throwing a Mexican pinata party in her hospital room as she lies dying. That sounds like something I would do. People do all sorts of things when they are near the end of their life. Why criticize it?
People living with a mental illness are often out of the box thinkers and very creative. Think Ted Turner, well known for creating the groundbreaking CNN and living with bipolar disorder. Or pop star Demi Lovato, who frequently sings about her battle with addictions.
Nevada needs people whose out-of-the-box thinking adds to the diversity of our state. I love things like the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko or Art Town in Reno, in July, an entire month spent celebrating the arts.
But let’s not forget Las Vegas and all the thousands of world-renown artists who have performed on the Strip over the years. Sure, not all of them live with health issues like depression or anxiety, but I’m sure plenty do, and it’s public knowledge, such as Elvis or Elton John.
It’s important to portray characters in film and on TV who live with a mental illness. But it is possible to make them both entertaining and real.