Remember the days of three television networks and infinitely less confusion over what to watch when you wanted to zone out? On most days, the amount of time I now channel surf is about equal to the time I actually view anything.
Longing for the good old days of “L.A. Law” and “Seinfeld,” I discovered NBC’s top-rated hit of the past two years, “This is Us.” The show has been has been a standout series that portrays the Pearson family, whose flawed but lovable members deal with various behavioral health challenges.
The writers have addressed Randall’s panic disorder and anxiety, Kate’s overeating addiction and Kevin, Jack and William’s substance abuse. The show is a case study in the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, as seen through the lens of society as scripted by the writers.
As a viewer, do you scream at Kevin to snap out of it? Do you think Randall is faking it? Do you feel these characters did something wrong to cause their circumstances? The lesson this show teaches is that people with mental illness need our love and support rather than our judgment.
As our population ages at an unprecedented rate, chronic illness, isolation and bereavement lead to behavioral health changes and challenges in our demographic as well. Our aging seniors of the “greatest generation” are not used to asking for help or talking about their problems. Misconceptions about mental illness also play into this silence.
There are so many wrongheaded ideas about what mental illness is and what it means to live with a mental health condition. For example, mental illness is not the result of personal weakness, poor upbringing or lack of character. Likewise, it isn’t about “getting over it” through willpower. Without meaning to, we may send those stigmatizing messages to someone struggling with a condition.
Stigma is a big problem for people with mental health conditions. It affects people’s well-being and damages their self-esteem and often prevents them from seeking treatment. Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, professor and chair of psychiatry at Columbia University and past president of the American Psychiatric Association, offers an excellent analogy. If we thought of mental illness as we do heart disease, symptoms like depression would be compared to chest pain. Anxiety would be like shortness of breath. Psychosis would be like an arrhythmia. In other words, mental illness would be seen correctly as an organic illness that originates in the structures of the brain.
The truth is words really matter. Think about the words that are commonly used to describe people with mental health disorders, such as “deranged” or “crazy.” Compare that to the image of the warrior that we envision for someone who is fighting cancer.
Being respectful includes not using clinical terms inappropriately. How often have you heard, “I am so OCD” or “I am addicted to ... ” or “I am paranoid.” These are real disorders that cause suffering to millions and are tossed around in our vernacular casually and with little regard for those who suffer, often in shame and in silence.
It is especially important to seniors that we offer support if we think someone is having trouble.
As art imitates life in “This Is Us,” we have a bird’s-eye view of mental illness in the Pearson family. The viewers fall in love with the characters as we peel back their layers without casting judgment or assigning stigma. With love and deep understanding, life can imitate art, and we can work to destigmatize mental illness by really seeing the person and not the condition. JN
Bob Roth is managing partner of Cypress HomeCare Solutions.