Jezebel’s Mental Illness Problem

Two recent Jezebel articles raise serious questions about the website’s perspective on mental illness.

Jezebel’s always been a hybrid of feminism and tabloid-esque gossip. Sometimes this is effective, and sometimes it’s not. But with two recent Jezebel blog posts focused on real life people living with mental illness, the latter is clearly presented at the expense of the former. Jezebel often presents itself as the go-to website for women interested in pop culture, but uncomfortable with its many demeaning and sexist realms. But as these articles demonstrate, Jezebel really is simply part of the frustrating cacophony.

In the middle of March Jason Russell, the cofounder of Invisible Children, was placed on psychiatric hold after being found naked, disorderly, and incoherent on the streets of a residential neighborhood in San Diego. It’s pretty obvious that Russell was not in his right mind. Absolute certainty about what went down is impossible, but doctors have described his behavior as part of a brief psychotic breakdown, and he has been involuntarily committed, so mental illness is a real possibility.

Nevertheless, Jezebel blogger Katie J.M. Baker chronicled Russell’s breakdown with undisguised glee in a blog post titled “Invisible Children Cofounder Arrested for Drunkenly Masturbating in Public.” She writes, “We’re not sure how to adequately express our shock and disbelief at the news that Jason Russell, one of Invisible Children’s co-founders and the star of the Kony 2012 campaign, was taken into custody last night for drunkenly masturbating in public.” Some readers reported that an earlier version of the blog post, which was later edited, called the Russell incident “delightful.” An update to the article
included video footage. “6:30 EST: TMZ somehow got their hands on video footage. It is horrifying. No wonder the guy’s on a 5150 psychiatric hold.” Baker ended her post by seeking out more embarrassing first person accounts, “Any San Diego Jezebel readers see Jason Russell dancing around in (or out of) his underwear last night? Email us.”

Baker seems to be gawking open mouthed at someone who was very likely in the midst of a psychotic episode, saying holy shit, this happens? People go nuts? Who would have thought? Whoa. She seems to be aiming for some level of ironic humor, but instead of using humor to dismantle harmful stereotypes she merely reinforces them. Crazy people are shocking and subhuman, ya’ll.

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Ending the Erasure of Mentally Ill Experience

Mental illness has been, and without a doubt will remain, the defining experience of my life. I’ve aspired to normalcy, I’ve fantasized about sanity, I’ve wanted to be someone without a mood disorder more than I’ve ever wanted anything else in my entire life. I recognize that this isn’t how it ought to be, but any other characterization would be dishonest.

This deep desire to be something other than what I am seems to me to have two primary causes:

1) The profound mental distress I’ve experienced and the way it’s interfered with my life.

2) The mainstream ignorance of the reality of mental illness.

Sure, the world at large knows that mental illness exists. But this superficial awareness hasn’t prevented a widespread fear and outright dislike of people living with mental illness. In a 2010 article in The L.A. Times, “Mental illness stigma lingers even though people understand it’s a brain disease,” Shari Roan reported on a study regarding attitudes toward mental illness and the mentally ill. The study looked at attitudes over time, and found little had changed from 1996 to 2006.

Roan wrote that, “For example, the percentage of people who said they are unwilling to work closely with someone with major depression was 46 percent in 1996 and 47 percent in 2006. The percentage of people who considered people with schizophrenia to be a danger to others was 54 percent in 1996 and 60 percent in 2006.”

Aware of this considerable stigma, the community of mental health advocates and organizations are focused on ending it by tackling it directly. The National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) has a monthly “StigmaBusters Alert” that focuses on harmful portrayals of mental illness in pop culture and the media. Medical websites, such as the Mayo Clinic, often have portions of their website devoted to mental health stigma. Celebrities like Glenn Close have come forward to be spokespeople against stigma.

And while all this is admirable, and I’m sure many of that these organizations have the best of intentions, I doubt this is really enough. Ending the stigma of mental illness is important, but that alone doesn’t facilitate a real understanding of what it means to live life with mental illness.

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