Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Let's tell realistic stories about mental illness

Last night's ABC program Changing Minds showed parts of the personal stories of a number of inpatients at a psychiatric ward in a hospital in Sydney, including 20-year-old Taileah, pictured here. It is an ambitious task the broadcaster has set itself, as for most people the idea of a psychiatric ward is a kind of chamber of horrors where people go when they are beyond practical help. Yes, the stigma persists, but the program might go some way toward alleviating its power.

The rendering of mental illness in popular culture has long been exemplified for me by the cruel demise of Trip in Sophia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (1999). The young man gains the trust and affection of Lux, one of the Lisbon sisters at the centre of the film's plot. From Wikipedia:
Trip comes over one night to the Lisbon residence to watch television and persuades Mr. Lisbon to allow him to take Lux to the upcoming Homecoming Dance by promising to provide dates for the other sisters, to go as a group. After winning Homecoming king and queen, Trip persuades Lux to ditch the group and have sex on the school's football field. Afterwards, Lux falls asleep and Trip, becoming disenchanted by Lux, abandons her. At dawn, Lux wakes up alone and has to take a taxi home. 
When next we see Trip he is in a psychiatric ward, about to take his medications. The austere and sanitised surroundings of the place reflect badly on him and his apparent mental collapse is rendered in the film as a moral failure. We are invited to view Trip's changed circumstances as a kind of poetic justice in favour of the departed Lux, whom he betrayed. So nothing can be worse than the inside of one of these facilities, in the colourful judgement of popular culture.

But things are changing. In Bernard Keane's recent novel Surveillance one of the characters hears voices in her head, and she must deal with this intrusion on a daily basis while negotiating the stresses and pressures of a full-time job. Emma Thomas is central to the plot but her mental issues require constant monitoring, and she frequently resorts to various medications in an effort to treat them. Emma is a sympathetic character who lives in meaningful symbiosis with her mental illness, and receives a kind of reprieve at the end of the story when her job prospects materially improve. More poetic justice, but of a kind that is signally different to the punishment meted out to poor Trip.

In my case ending up in a mental institution was a bit different because it happened when I was living overseas, in Japan. I remember the staff to all have been unfailingly kind and supportive. I played catch with one of the pretty nurses once, and on another occasion I played ping-pong with another inpatient, a young man who had succumbed to illness as a result of the use of narcotics. We ate our meals in the dining room three times a day. I remember having trouble getting to sleep in the men's ward area because the beds were all set up in one large room with only curtains separating them from each other. The doctors liked me because I was well-behaved and let me back out into the community after six weeks.

The thing is that a mental institution can quite easily be a mere waystation on the individual's journey from victim to a life of useful integration in the broader community. The thing to keep in mind is that mental illness can strike anyone at any time, and in any event - because people are living longer nowadays - most people end up living with Alzheimer's disease, a mental illness, anyway. One-in-five people over 80 will get dementia, and the ratio narrows to one-in-two by the age of 85. Rather than being exceptional, occasional mental problems are a routine part of life for the majority. It's time we started to tell more realistic stories about it.

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