What We Think About When We Think About Mental Illness

There was a piece in The Nation a little while back that began, “Like most people, I know too much about celebrities. Take Paris Hilton, for example.” [Geeky librarian note: searching “paris hilton site:thenation.com” gets a surprisingly large number of hits.] Indeed. So do I. While there were a few years in Iowa City where, by dint of shopping mostly at the Coop, I managed to avoid knowing very much about anyone in the tabloids, those days are gone.

My library, like many libraries, receives People magazine every week. I get the mail and set out the magazines, so every week I get whatever celebrity news is on the cover. Usually I can leave it at that–oh, someone’s getting married, someone else is getting divorced, and someone, somewhere, is always pregnant or thought to be. This week’s cover said “BRITNEY’S MENTAL ILLNESS.”

The article has various doctors positing that Britney Spears may have manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder. As an armchair psychiatrist (my friend and I once diagnosed all the characters in Winnie the Pooh), I’d say that’s not a surprising conclusion and not at all unlikely. The article even did a reasonably good job of describing the illness — not everyone’s manic periods are so stereotypically full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll — but then not everyone has access to quite the same scene as Spears, and People is trying to sell magazines, not serve as a psychiatric primer. And then there’s my favorite statement in the article: “Troubles have plagued the paternal side of her family tree as well: Her grandmother Emma Spears shot herself to death at 31; Jamie has battled alcohol problems. Still, says Britney’s former dance teacher and family friend Renee Donewar, ‘I’ve never heard anyone talk about there being a history of mental illness in her family or making a big deal about it at all.'”

Ms. Donewar has apparently not picked up on the inherited nature of mental illness. Family history of suicide? Check. Alcoholism? Check. Feeling like life is meaningless and/or going out of control? Yes, Houston, I think we have a problem. You’ll all be glad to know, though, I’m sure, that Dr. Phil has met with the family.

I didn’t start writing about this intending it to turn either snarky or sentimental: my intention was neither to make fun of Spears nor to elicit sympathy for her case, though I can well imagine both reactions occurring, perhaps even simultaneously.

What I was thinking about instead is bipolar disorder and how little we understand it or any of its cohorts in the DSM-IV, and how ill-prepared our society is to deal with its ravages. Kay Redfield Jamison discusses her spending sprees in her memoir An Unquiet Mind, noting that “money spent while manic doesn’t fit into the Internal Revenue Service concept of medical expense or business loss.” How do you handle that sort of thing? How do you get out of the debt that mania has put you into? What do you tell a child with a parent in such a situation? Jamison is lucky enough to have a family who could afford to pay off her debts and a profession lucrative enough that she was, in turn, able to pay them back, and one presumes that financial problems will not be a part of the picture for Britney Spears.

What I’m asking, really, I suppose, is how one perceives the mentally ill people who are not famous or rich or glamorous or even pretty? I’d like to think that somehow the examples of the famous would create more sympathy in the world, but I suspect that they merely create more headlines.

This hasn’t been much of a “what I’ve been up to” sort of a post — what I’ve been up to is work and cross-country skiing and exercise class and making terrible pumpkin muffins — but it is sort of a “things I’ve been thinking about” post, which I guess will have to do.

2 thoughts on “What We Think About When We Think About Mental Illness”

  1. Kay Redfield Jamison wrote another book Touched by Fire – where she outlined countless poets, artists, composers and politicians that she believed suffered from bipolar disorder or something similiar.

    As for your question, I believe mental illness and diagnosis has come a long way from The Bell Jar. And even the 50s hospitals were much more “humane” than the 19th century asylums/prisons. In the present, most people have one or more people in their family who have been diagnosed with depression. I think we’re slowly moving past the stigma mental illness and its treatment once had.

    As for the pulp headlines, well, if I believe there are some truth to the claims – I hope that the celebrities in question get the help they need. That’s really up to them though. Some, perhaps, might be able to write books about their experiences – like Brooke Shields did with post-partum depression. With the intense worship of celebrity – it might help someone think twice about seeking treatment/asking for help.

    It always feels easier when you know you’re not the only person who has been through a particular hell.

  2. Yes, I’ve read Touched With Fire, too. It’s odd, though–in some ways the 1950s mental health system seems like a nightmare, but on the other hand, in the days before managed care, you could be hospitalized for longer–and, I suspect–more therapeutic lengths of time. Psychiatric hospitals now are, for the most part, just sort of holding tanks for people considered to be suicidal. There are plenty of horror stories about lengthy hospitalizations, of course, but then there are accounts like that of William Styron, in Darkness Visible, where it seems that a stay in the hospital was beneficial. I suppose, as with most things, that It Depends. I’d just be happier if our health care system, and our society, made more room for those various dependencies.

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