Mental Illness Is Not a Punchline

Damn, I’m certainly on a crusade against humor these days.

That was sarcasm, by the way. I love humor. I just think it should be deployed carefully.

A few days ago in my Psychology of Personality class, the following happened:

Some people were having their own conversations while the professor was trying to give a lecture. The professor cracked a joke–“Hey guys, I have ADD so I can’t focus if other people are talking, so please stop!” followed by “I don’t really have ADD, but still.”

Now, for the record, I totally get that it sucks for a teacher when people are talking in class. But I also feel that there are other ways to address that situation without making a joke about having a mental illness that you don’t actually have. Especially, you know, if you’re a person who has a PhD in psychology and conducts research on people with actual mental illnesses.

The sad thing is, before he followed his comment up with that disclaimer, I was actually really touched. I thought it was wonderful that a professor of psychology would take a stand against the stigma of mental illness by stating in class that he has one. But then, you know, it turned out to just be a joke.

~~~

Last spring, I took a class on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It was an advanced class, with just around ten students or so, taught by one of the most esteemed professors in the department. We got to the chapter on Borderline Personality Disorder, which, as you may know, is considered one of the most frustrating mental disorders–both for clinicians and for the patient’s friends and family. So naturally, no discussion of it could be complete without my professor’s bombastic explanations about how she tries to avoid treating BPD patients because they’re just SUCH a pain and about how she once had a friend with BPD who was just SO hard to deal with. Everyone gasped and laughed at her descriptions.

Then, of course, the other students had to start raising their hands and talking about their own friends that they’d taken the liberty of diagnosing with BPD, and how  horrific those people were.

This was a time in my life when I was seriously wondering if I had BPD myself, so, yeah, that was pretty unpleasant.

~~~

Last fall, I took a class on psychopathology. It was my second psychology course ever, and my first that related specifically to mental disorders–a topic very close to my heart at the time since I’d been diagnosed with major depression only a month before.

Before the course started, the professor sent out an anonymous survey to the entire class about our experiences with mental illness. On the first day of class, she disclosed the stunning results–more than half of us said we’d been diagnosed with one.

So we got to the chapter on depression and the professor started talking about depressive cognitive distortions, using specific examples. The professor started listing them off in such a way that the whole class started laughing. And laughing, and laughing.

Now, I totally get that it sounds funny. Consider this dialogue:

X: I’m getting a B in calculus. I’m a total failure.

Y: You’re not a failure at all! You have straight As in the rest of your classes.

X: Well, those don’t count. They’re easy anyway.

Y: Yes, and calculus is pretty hard, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t do as well. Besides, a B is a pretty good grade.

X: No, it’s a shitty grade. Everything I do is shitty and I’m always going to be a failure.

That is an example of several cognitive distortions, including overgeneralization, disqualifying the positive, magnification, and labeling. And, when read aloud in a particular tone of voice, I can see how it might sound kind of funny.

But having been through it myself and studied it extensively, I can also hear the pain behind what X is saying. It’s not a punchline. It’s a cry for help from a person trapped inside their malfunctioning mind.

~~~

Here’s the thing. I get it. People with PhDs in psychology have spent years and years reading, writing, and talking about stuff like this. I’m sure that it’s completely normal for two psychologists to crack jokes about mental illness to each other.

Knowing that many people who pursue degrees in psychology are spurred to do so by their own experiences with mental illness (I’m an example of this), I understand the urge to joke about it because I joke about it myself. It helps alleviate the fear and pain of living with mental illness.

That doesn’t mean I’d joke about it to a room full of 100 people who don’t know me well and who may be dealing with their own issues, though.

Case in point–at the time I took the aforementioned psychopathology class, I was still learning how to recognize cognitive distortions in myself, and I was beginning to realize the extent to which they’d ruined all of my previous interactions, friendships, and relationships. To have a room full of 100 people laughing uproariously about something that nearly brought you to suicide just three short months before is, well, no laughing matter.

~~~

I’m not saying there’s no room for humor about mental illness. There definitely is, and humor has been one of several strategies that have helped me process what happened to me. But humor must be used carefully.

I’ve written before about the complex relationship between humor and mental illness–here, here, here, here, and here. But this time, the situation is very different because the off-color jokes are coming not from comedians, television writers, novelists, or clueless friends of mine, but from people who know more about psychology than 99% of the population.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t quite worked up the courage to tell a person with a PhD that they’ve offended me.

But I’m working on it.

On People Who Think They're so Damn Funny

[Snark Warning]

Like many depressives, I have a love-hate relationship with humor. A well-crafted joke, anecdote, or cartoon can cheer me up during the worst times, but because of the various cognitive deficits associated with depression, I have a lot of trouble processing humor when it’s directed at me or my life.

Enter another thing I have a love-hate relationship with: Facebook. As one of those rare people who’s “out” about having a mental illness (to shamelessly borrow terminology from the LGBT community), I occasionally post something related to my current troubles on my Facebook. Most of the people who bother reading it are fairly good friends of mine who know what’s going on and often stop by and leave a nice comment or a simple “<3″ on those posts.

But then there are people who insist on trying to force a joke about the situation. These well-intentioned but insufferably clueless people are the bane of any depressive’s life. They’re our friends, sometimes even pretty good ones, and as much as we know that they mean well, it can be very painful to have a really difficult aspect of your life reduced to a dumb joke like that. And it’s nearly impossible to find a way to respond–any suggestion that the joke was out of place is inevitably met with “but I was just trying to lighten the mood” or “I just wanted to cheer you up.”

Here’s the thing, though–you can’t fix a depressed person anyway. (Sometimes, you can’t even fix a depressed person if you’re a psychiatrist or psychologist.) The most you can do is offer a message of support and refrain from trying to turn a depressed person’s misery into a big huge joke.

Honestly, I doubt that even healthy people are actually “cheered up” by jokes made at their expense. I can’t imagine that’s pleasant for anyone who’s already in kind of a bad mood. But it’s especially unpleasant for a depressed person and can trigger all sorts of nasty stuff.

I think people have a huge fear of others’ unhappiness. The moment you see a sad person, you immediately want to drag them, kicking and screaming, out of their sadness, whether they asked you to or not. This is understandable, but it should be avoided, not only because there’s so little you can really do, but because you should try to understand people before you try to help them.

If anyone ever bothered to ask me what they could do to help me feel better, you can guarantee I wouldn’t say “crack a dumb joke at my expense.” And, don’t worry, I wouldn’t say “sit here for hours and listen to me cry,” either. I would probably ask you to have a conversation about something interesting, like politics or culture, with me. Or I’d ask you to come over and bring a good movie. Or I’d ask you to bake some cookies with me. Or, I’d say, “Nothing, but thanks for asking.”

What people don’t understand about depression is that it’s different from normal sadness not only in quantity, but in quality. To put it more simply, it’s just a different kind of sadness. When someone has a depressive episode, they go to a really dark place that healthy people don’t go to ever. Not even when their significant other breaks up with them or something like that. It’s a darkness that can’t be lit up by a stupid joke. Really, it can’t be fully lit up by anything. But human connection, love, and support can sometimes help.

Obviously, not everybody is willing to provide that for everybody else. That’s fine, and that’s how it should be. But if you can’t give me what I need to feel better, don’t give me something that makes me feel worse, either.

Like many problems that I come across in my life, this turns out to be something that’s actually a much larger issue. I believe that the reason people are so desperate to immediately try to “lighten the mood” the instant they see something unpleasant is because our culture has an extreme fear of negative emotion. We avoid it like the plague, and it comes as no surprise to me that most of our culture’s solutions for achieving happiness seem to focus on eliminating things like fear, sadness, and anger entirely, rather than incorporating them into one’s life in a normal, healthy way. Clearly, what I have isn’t healthy, but it’s only the extreme end of spectrum. I see this sort of blind and terrified avoidance of anything that’s sad, whether it’s severe like depression or totally normal, everywhere I look.

If you’ve just read this and realized that what I’m describing sounds exactly like you, I hope you’re not offended. If you are, my apologies. But I hope you trust that behind all this snark is a lot of pain.

And, if you’re still reading, I have a challenge for you. Next time you come across a post from a friend that’s unhappy in some way, don’t rush to make a joke about it. Don’t try to drag your friend away from what they’re feeling. If you absolutely need to comment on it somehow, say “I’m sorry, that really sucks,” or “I hope you feel better.” I guarantee that unless you happen to be Jon Stewart, that’ll work better than any joke.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Dutch priest and writer Henri Nouwen:

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion… that is a friend who cares.”

"Yeah, well, what did you expect?" (Or, Douchebag Apologists)

There’s a story that’s been running through my mind all week. It’s about a woman who posted a photo of her beaten face on Reddit after she was sexually assaulted, and the community responded by claiming that it “looked fake.”

One user claimed that since she’d used makeup to dress up like a zombie before, then it was probably fake. Another user claimed that he was a medical student (and therefore qualified to judge) and that the bruise just didn’t look genuine. Yet another user claimed that because the woman in question had mentioned previously that she has anal sex and that she likes being burned during sex, she must be faking.

The douchey Redditors didn’t let up until the woman responded, saying that she’s unsure of how to prove that the wound is real short of running a wet cloth over it and posting a video. They convinced her to do it. She did. Only then did they start going back on their previous judgments.

What disturbed me most about this story wasn’t the fact that there were a few douchebags on the internet. Rather, it was many of the comments on the Jezebel piece I linked to, which included the following:

Of all the places on the internet, why the fuck would you go to Reddit looking for sympathy and support?

This whole thing is pretty stomach turning. But I still don’t understand why one would want to take their story of sexual assault to a space like Reddit. It doesn’t, uh, seem like a safe space.

That’s what I was just thinking! Of all places, why would you post there?

There’s some truth to these comments, of course. Reddit really isn’t anything close to a safe space. However, I’m pretty disturbed by the idea that many people have–even commenters on a progressive blog like Jezebel–that some places are just unsafe and some people are just bad and all we can do is avoid those places and people.
As members of a sentient race, yes, we have the right to expect and demand a reasonable degree of civility from our fellow humans. I’m really no idealist, but I still don’t think there’s any reason we should assume that where we are now is the apex of human development. Shrugging your shoulders and saying, “Yeah, well, what did you expect?” doesn’t change anything, and it doesn’t help anyone.
One commenter put it this way:
The whole “You should have known better than to post here” thing gets really close to victim blaming, IMO. The Reddit community is perfectly fine with providing group therapy and noncontroversial messages of support 90% of the time. Safe spaces exist (though with all the transphobic shit occuring in /r/femisims, I’m not sure it is one), but that doesn’t mean you should expect to be harassed and denigrated in “unsafe” spaces. That’s akin to saying “Well of course you had some people catcall you when you went out in the street. Why didn’t you just stay at home, where it’s safe?”
Like this commenter, I can easily see the connection between “Yeah, well, people are just assholes” and “Yeah, well, men always catcall and rape women.” Not only do statements like these put the onus on the victims to change their behavior (don’t go out alone, don’t post your story on the internet), but they’re pretty dismissive towards our fellow humans. People can be taught not to catcall and rape, and they can be taught not to be assholes to others on the internet. Not immediately, perhaps, but over time.
Like I’ve mentioned before, I think that people have become too cynical about changing the status quo. We’ve gotten into the habit of selling people short by assuming that they can’t change. But I think it’s worth pointing out that there was a time when a woman who was beaten by her husband for not fixing dinner would’ve been met with the response, “Yeah, well, what did you expect? You didn’t fix him dinner!” An African American who was beaten for using a “white only” drinking fountain would’ve been told, “Yeah, well, what did you expect? You should’ve used the ‘colored’ fountain!”
Obviously, beating people up for stepping out of their culturally-sanctioned proper place is in no way equivalent to being a dick to a woman who’s just been sexually assaulted. But the similarity lies in the idea that some things, while unfortunate, are “just the way things are.”
Don’t be an apologist for douchebags. Next time you see or hear about a story like this one, don’t ask, “Yeah, well, what did you expect?” Instead, ask, “What could we do to change that?”