Let's Stop Laughing at Mental Illness

Photo by flickr user AndreasS. Click photo to visit original image. Lately I've been seeing a lot of these "you're in a mental hospital..." chain statuses going around on facebook. The content is as follows:

You're in a mental hospital.  Use the first 7 people on your text list in order... No cheating!

  • Your roommate:
  • Person licking windows:
  • Person helping you escape:
  • The doctor:
  • Person running around naked:
  • Person yelling nonsense:
  • Person you went crazy with:

Let's see if yours is as true and funny as mine!

I get it; it's just for a laugh. It's supposed to be "true and funny." But the reality isn't funny at all, nor is it likely to be true about the people whose names someone plugs in.

Now, to those who have posted these statuses, please don't feel embarrassed or shamed. That's not my intention. The issue is much deeper than that one status. Jokes about mental illness are peppered throughout many types of media in various ways for one reason: because we're expected to laugh. Somewhere along the line, our society decided that as long as it was kept at arm's length and talked about in general terms, mental illness was okay to laugh about. But it's not. Mental illness is just as real as physical illness and its effects just as devastating. It leads to the ruin of—and for some, even the end of—lives. It's stigmatized and misunderstood, which only contributes to the problems.

To help illustrate this, I want to show what an accurate chain status about a mental hospital might look like. It'd probably be a lot more like this:

You're in a mental hospital.  Use the first 7 people on your text list in order... No cheating!

  • Your roommate, who is there because of her fourth failed suicide attempt, and who will probably try for a fifth when she's released:
  • Person licking windows because, although he's a forty-five year old man, he has the mental capacity of a three year old child. He's there because his parents have both passed away and he is unable to care for himself:
  • Person helping you escape because she has Paranoid Delusional Disorder and is unshakably convinced that the doctors are systematically murdering the patients. She is constantly terrified:
  • The doctor, who became a psychiatrist because when she was ten years old, her mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder, shot herself in their living room:
  • Person running around naked because he suffers from schizoaffective disorder. He's in the midst of a hypomanic episode and has no control over his impulses:
  • Person yelling nonsense because he suffered a psychotic break and can no longer communicate effectively. He has a wife and two children who may never have a normal conversation with him again:

(I'll answer the next one for you.)

  • Person you went crazy with: You, because you have been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder and have two entirely separate personalities. They hate each other.

Let's see if yours is as true and funny as mine.

So is it still funny?

I'm currently writing a novel (Ourselves and Others) partially based on my own brief experience as a patient in a psychiatric ward. It occurred several years ago and it's not something everyone knows about me (until now, I guess), but it was an important experience. Being in one of those places and seeing firsthand the kind of havoc mental illness can wreak on people and relationships changes a person. Mental health is no longer something I struggle with, but there are others for whom every day is a battle. I can't laugh at them or make light of their situations anymore. I can't enjoy a joke about a psychiatric ward any more than I could a joke about a cancer wing. I can't laugh because all I see is the ugly truth buried beneath the humor.

I'm not saying I'm above anyone else; I admit that I used to find lighthearted talk about mental illness (like the initial chain status) funny. It's easy to laugh about something intangible and unfamiliar. Only when I experienced it firsthand did I stop laughing.

And while I hope you never have to share that experience, I hope just as much that you stop laughing too.


To learn more about mental illness, locate facilities, or seek help, visit www.mentalhealth.gov.

For a list of 24 hour mental health hotlines, click here: http://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/resources/mental-health-hotline-numbers-and-referral-resources/