Dear America: Don't Desensitize Yourself to Mental Health

By Maggie Kurnyta

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The state of American mental health is in massive disrepair. As I write these sentences, I can already hear the impending fear and/or nihilistic remarks that are sure to follow. If the world really is so damaged, then how can we even begin to try and fix it? Well, we definitely can, but it does require a long look at ourselves in the closest mirror...preferably one that doesn’t simply expose our wrongdoings, but also provides a process to correct them.

For one, our colloquialisms and everyday jargon in relation to mental health have essentially negated any candid discussions that need to occur to make insightful change in the world. Words, like “crazy,” “insane,” and “psycho” have manifested into descriptions of humor and satire. I completely agree that by satirizing something, you essentially strip it of validity and emotional significance. Yet, maybe, just maybe, there are multiple ways to address mental health, some of which include satirizing it for close-minded individuals (yes, I do mean those Facebook trolls that exist only to taunt and criticize any social justice issue).

Hear me out, I am not proposing that the issue of mental health simply become the newest late-night comedy bit. Unsurprisingly, as a field, mental health is drastically underfunded in terms of research, education, and overall complex understanding. When I say complex understanding, I simply mean basic human empathy and humanity’s incapacity to see mental health as a form of self-care.

Recently, however, I pondered the popularity of shows, such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and 13 Reasons Why, and their contribution to America’s comprehensive understanding of mental health. Television shows should not be the primary educators of personal health and well-being, but without adequate resources in our medical and technical fields, little can be done to change the current tide. Avid TV watchers are enjoying basic entertainment and learning about mental health simultaneously.

America has quickly turned into a nation of television consumption. We digest and discuss plot lines, character arcs, and couple ships with friends, co-workers, and family members. Sometimes, these conversations can force us to confront internalized biases and stigmas, and other times, they exist solely for amusement and humor. My question remains: Do shows that focus on mental health have an obligation to educate their viewers, or do they strictly exist to make a profit about the very real experiences of so many people?

I am an avid watcher of the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and it has certainly received its fair share of both praise and criticism. One of its creators and lead actress, Rachel Bloom, has been vocal about her own experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, and depression, as well as the need for mental health advocacy. Her use of wit and satire to combat mental health stigma remains a controversial one, but I would argue that the need for an authentic story whether it be a comedy or a drama is most critical.

On the other hand, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why has received severe fan backlash, as well as numerous petitions demanding the show’s cancellation due to graphic content and an overall lack of sensitivity when describing mental health issues. While I am a firm champion for authentic portrayals of mental health from community members, I can also acknowledge that just having any story shared can be just as harmful as not having anything shared. Exploitative stories are damaging and traumatic, and if a community voices some kind of criticism, we should always listen.

As long as we consume television shows, I have no doubt that these discussions and debates will continue. While the Marxist-feminist in me would love to dismantle our oppressive capitalist-consumerist culture, I can also see the necessity of working internally to cause significant change. Mental health conversations cannot be one-and-done, and the lack of education and information we have on these topics will inevitably desensitize us to any form of action. These stories demand to be told, and we deserve to listen to them.

We cannot simply resort to action when an American tragedy forces us to. We also cannot, and I mean 100% cannot, perpetuate a linguistic system that synonymizes terms like, hysteria and instability, with the mental health movement. Folks, please never resort to using the term ‘crazy’ to describe an unusual phenomenon or an ex that you simply cannot have a conversation with. When your child/coworker/virtually anyone tells you they need a ‘Mental Health Day,’ check in with them and give them the day, week, or even month that they need.

Just because we passively consume these stories on TV and then discuss them in terms of entertainment value does not mean we need to shed our humanity. Mental health is not a punchline. As a person who uses the term ‘crazy’ as a comedic, albeit dangerous personality descriptor, my desires are hypocritical unless I make these changes myself. It is an everyday journey to acknowledge our faults, improve our language, and wholeheartedly care for those around us. Mental health has been ostracized as a solo battle, but it isn’t a battle. It’s a journey that relies on the compassion and empathy skills of those around us.