A few weeks ago, I’d written about writing To The World and how counter-productive I think it is. That’s coming from a place of deep concern for those who experience mental and emotional distress. Not enough people are angry about the hideously broken system that is mental healthcare and I want that to change. One of the ways I see that happening is for people to raise their voices…effectively, at appropriate targets.
Most writers of the articles I detailed in my first post about this would probably vigorously deny that they commit any of the errors therein. If that’s the case, then you’re not really writing to The World. That’s fine – preferred, in my opinion, but then stop claiming to. What does “What I Want The World To Know” really mean? It seems to me that it means, “Ouch, Stop Hurting Me.” It seems to me that it means “I Want Stuff To Change.” It seems to me that it means “Can We Come Together On This Thing Here?” Those are all beautiful statements, far less presumptuous and tired than “What I Want The World To Know,” so why not say them? Authenticity is more than a buzzword.
But instead of the world being the stage, we want the world to be the audience. Our personal audience. But when you try to write for everyone, you end up not really engaging anyone. Not everyone likes the fiddle. Not all people care about football (I know, I hate to be the one to break it to you). Not everyone cares about depressed people. Maybe you think everyone should. But if you start by addressing “everyone,” you are likely going to alienate those who already care and bore those who don’t. You can’t write for your enemy and your friend until you’ve made the former into the latter if want them to listen.
Speaking of audiences, we’ve had this bizarre rash of celebrities coming out about their experiences with mental illness. I say “bizarre” because it seems almost entirely related to the mounting “let’s talk about it” buzz among the general public and the reason that’s odd to me is because of how easy it seems to have been to get sky-high stars’ attention. I guess by ‘bizarre,’ what I really mean is suspicious. I’m not suspicious of the number of celebrities who’ve experienced mental or emotional distress – I, thank the good Lord, know nothing of the surely hydraulic pressures of living every detail of your life in front of The World (we’ll come back to this in a minute). Nor am I suspicious of the truth of their suffering. But do they really think that sharing with their solid and adoring fan bases about the horrors of mental distress while most have the resources for effective treatment is helping?
Maybe I’m being a bit presumptuous about the resources thing. Not everyone who’s famous is rich (especially if you’re a writer or artist); our society’s insatiable “need” (there’s a malapropism if I’ve ever seen one) for cheap everything has shredded most artists’ ability to support themselves on their labors, to say nothing of how devalued the arts are in this culture. But most regular people don’t have a set of fans cheering them on as they face the ravages of mental distress. I’m not saying that sort of thing would fix it, but I wouldn’t guess Hayden Panettiere or John Green would be at risk for forced drugging, involuntary committal or death by the cop their family called because they were “exhibiting signs of undue arousal or agitation.” So I, one of the mere masses, cannot relate. The way the conversation in the stars is going, it sounds like “I’m depressed and you can be, too!”
After the suicide of Robin Williams, depression suddenly became trendy, much like it became “cool” to be an introvert after the release of Susan Cain’s Quiet. Celebrities lending their voices to the struggle of those with so-called “mental illness” is like a lumberjack advocating for sustainable foresting practices; their livelihood depends on the attention they get and sustain from the crowds and it doesn’t much matter how accurate they are in whatever “cause” they decide to take up. Like a lot of other “awareness campaigns,” it seems, from my vantage point, that it’s increasing the amount of misinformation, which in turn, increases stigma. Just “talking about it” isn’t going to change people’s opinions or how those experiencing mental distress are treated by law enforcement, those that purport to be “treating” them or the broader society, especially if how we’re talking about it is inaccurate. I’m all for supporting those experiencing mental distress – I’m one of the ones that think that everyone should care about depressed people, in part because I think they are the canaries of what modern life is doing to the human spirit. But it’s not supportive to spread misinformation. And, unwittingly or otherwise, the celebrities that have spoken up about their struggles with mental distress have largely done mostly that, unfortunately.
In the first place, as I mentioned, fame exerts entirely different pressures on a person than “regular life” does. One is not worse than the other, but there’s not an easy way to draw a line between the two and that’s the point. Celebrities are people, too, but there are certain things famous people have to deal with that the rest of us don’t and vice versa. Additionally, I’ve not heard of a single celebrity challenging the biomedical model of mental distress (if you know of one, post about it in the comments!) – I haven’t heard even one not use the phrase “mental illness” when describing their struggles. But is depression really an illness? About 70% of the DSM-5’s task force has financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Again, I’m in no way questioning the suffering. Fame, I’ve heard, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; or, as the late David Foster Wallace said through the mouth of one of his many characters in Infinite Jest, “Fame is not the exit from any cage.”
So that loops us right back around to the beginning. You Who Write To The World, why do you want that kind of attention? The world is, in many ways – and I say this primarily theologically – a ruthless, cutthroat place where every possible apparatus is designed to shear and denigrate you, whether you’re famous or not. I’m not an apologist for hiding, but I’ve learned the hard way the value of picking your battles. Fighting “the world” likely isn’t worth it.