As has been previously noted, I like television. While watching another guilty pleasure, American Horror Story Asylum, I can barely contain myself with my need to comment and I am quickly turning into someone who talks to his own television screen. I am quite grateful to the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, who is turning questions about mental health treatment and stigma on their ear. But it can still be difficult to watch, not only for the horror and gore, but also because the most atrocious (and false) depictions of and statements about mental illness continue to linger in our culture, today.
American Horror Story started last fall, and the first season centered around a house purported to be haunted because it was the home of many grotesque murders. Throughout the season it became clear that the lines between the world we know and the supernatural were thin, and many of the characters were already dead, but somehow able to live on, thanks to the power of the house. Jessica Lange played the unapologetically sinister neighbour and stole every scene she was in. By the end of the season, it was hard to imagine where the show could go without it being a repetition of more of the same—new residents in a haunted house, psychologically tortured by former residents and an evil neighbour. Great concept for one season, but total Yawnsville if you do it again.
Luckily, the writers are clever. This season, the show is set primarily in 1964, and several of the actors from last season have returned, but are totally different characters. What I have found most interesting, however, is that a great deal of the disturbing ideas that are turning this horror show into a social commentary are concepts that continue to be hot button issues in the present time. Having Jessica Lange’s character, Sister Jude (this season, she’s a former bad-girl-turned-nun!) bellow without an ounce of compassion, “Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin,” seems utterly ridiculous today, until we begin to think about all the subtle messaging that mental health issues are the results of individual failings and moral laxity.
In real life, people with depression are sometimes falsely characterized as lazy, if their symptoms are such that getting out of bed is a major accomplishment for the day. And certainly when it comes to addictions-related issues, the harshest judgments come out of statements that it’s all a free-will choice (“Why can’t you just STOP!”). And there continues to be common cultural misconceptions that those suffering under the burden of mental illness are just using their symptoms as excuses for taking responsibility for their own behaviours and decisions.
If only it were all that simple. In fact, simplistic thinking like this in our culture is why individuals are often blamed for their own illnesses. If we understand mental illness as a PERSONAL failing, then the resulting answer to fix the problem resides solely within the person who is suffering. Easy-peasy. And it allows us to feel safe—if we just do all the right things, nothing bad can happen to us. If, on the other hand, we understand mental illness as a complex set of interactions between people, between people and the environments they live in, between people and their own biology…well, it can start to get a bit overwhelming. However, we get a great deal closer to reality when we recognize that there isn’t an easy or quick fix for mental health and addictions related issues. If it were easy or simple, anyone who suffers wouldn’t allow their lives to become unmanageable. Who would choose to allow their mental health symptoms to end relationships? Negatively affect their parenting? Result in job losses? Lead to poverty?
Don’t get me wrong—there are things we all can do for ourselves and for each other to set the stage for more comfortable living, such as managing our health more generally through diet, exercise and sleep habits. And if we have a network of supportive friends and family, the odds are in our favour that we will be able to handle adversity better. Being able to process difficult life events in the presence of caring others helps us to cope with that we cannot change. However, these things—the managing of our health and the eliciting of support--take a great deal of work, and also some amount of good fortune to be able to meet those needs. Try managing your diet when you’re unemployed…likely, you’re not going to be going to the store to get the vegan-all-natural-no-soy-no-dairy cheese to put on your home ground spelt pizza crust, or the anti-biotic-and-hormone-free chicken for dinner. And if you’re busy spending time in your head working through a traumatic experience, you may not have sufficient energy to put in to friendships that will nurture you. You might not even feel like you’re someone worthy of having relationships.
It’s a bit of a tightrope, figuring out what we can manage individually, and what is beyond our control. Making this distinction is one of the things I try to work on with people in therapy. We may not be able to change structures or the past, but we can become aware how that part of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are influenced and constrained by our life situation. And we all have those voices in our head that make those negative comments—that voice is just louder and more convincing for some people. However, being aware of both the outer and inner influences may help us to make more self-affirming decisions so that we can find corners in tough situations where we still feel good…or at least better than when we judge ourselves or feel judged by others.
In the history of mental health treatment, we have come a long way since some of the darkest hours of recent history shown in American Horror Story Asylum (I didn’t even get into that there’s a discussion about the “standard treatment for homosexuality” because one of the main characters is a lesbian this season). However, we still have a long way to go in not stigmatizing mental illness as a personal failing and in recognizing the larger structural factors that cause it. Given that this AHSA is so over the top (like we’re talking fantasy sci-fi without it feeling like you’re on the planet Gorgon), we can see it as a scathing social commentary, raising difficult questions and demanding that we not use labels to mistreat others.