Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mental Illness and Morality

I am often hurt, deeply hurt, when people with mental illness and mental or developmental disabilities are used as plot devices in movies and TV shows. The nature of those media precludes these folks being portrayed in all their complexity.  One of the most egregious "mistakes" is how those with mental illness, bipolar disorder especially, are portrayed as immoral people.  What do these people do, normally?  They steal credit cards, or use their own, and go on shopping sprees they can't pay for.  They demand sex 20 hours a day (Kaye Gibbons has a character doing that in one of her books).  They hurt and kill people.  Apparently, they have no moral center and no guilt after their breaking moral boundaries.

Yes, those who suffer from mental illness often do things that violate moral standards, but it is not because they have no morality in their own lives.  I live with someone with depression, and he has been told he has bipolar disorder (I think it's the lesser form, though.)  He is a very moral person.  He won't sell a motorcycle we have because he's afraid someone will be killed on it (and he felt this way before his nephew died on a motorcycle about five years ago).  He is discouraged about church, but we read the Bible and prayed every morning when our son was in middle school and high school.  He is scrupulously honest, and feels deeply for people.

Further, my brother is autistic, along with other developmental problems.  Autistic people do not all fit the "Rainman" pattern.  People with Asperger's are not just socially awkward and mean (Roger Ebert, shame on him, said that Mark Zuckerberg must have Asperger's, based on how he is portrayed in the movie about him.)  There are various levels of ASD, these folks have personalities, they can learn.  They do not just exist to teach us something about ourselves.  If nothing else, that belief shows how narcissistic we are.  

Another example is the movie A Beautiful Mind.  It is a good movie, and my husband so identified with it he was crying in the theater.  I, on the other hand, was watching it analytically, like a literary critic, so who's the person with the empathy problem here?  However, schizophrenics (include John Nash) do not "see" people, they hear voices, so the movie was inaccurate (also because apparently he was anti-semitic). 

I know mental illness is complex, but I resent the portrayal of these folks as plot foils who have no control over their behavior whatsoever and don't care who they hurt or if they hurt.  It's simply not so.  What is worse is that  because most people do not come into much contact with mental illness, they think the movie portrayals are true. 

I would appreciate comments here, as with all my posts.

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