Do you know what May is? Mental Health Awareness Month!
I don’t know about you, but one of the first things I think of in association with “mental health” is “stigma”, followed by things like “horror story” and “thriller”. I’m a big fan of shows like Criminal Minds, but I’m also passionate about ending the stigma of mental illness. Not only is the cliche of “bad guy is a bad guy because of X mental disorder” kinda lazy and predictable, it regurgitates the stereotype that people with mental disorders are violent. In reality, they’re more likely to be VICTIMS of violence than non-disordered individuals. It’s true that mental illness can be scary, but in real life it’s mainly scary for the person experiencing it.
The website TV Tropes has a long list of tropes about mental illness, ranging from “all people with ADHD are easily distracted” and “all people with Tourette’s swear uncontrollably” to “Dissociative Identity Disorder makes you a serial killer” and “all psychopaths are violent criminals”. There are real people with these conditions, not just comic relief characters and bad guys.
Since most people get their information on the topic from the media, the only thing that playing up mental illness as scary or funny accomplishes is setting apart people with mental illnesses as “other”. The presumption of violence (as well as other stigmas) keeps people from getting treatment, whatever form said treatment may take. Stigma can also lead to comorbid issues such as depression (which is more than just “being sad”) and a substance use disorder (substances may be used as a maladaptive coping strategy), compounding the time that would be spent in treatment.
One in five Americans will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives. In a group of five people, one of them could be your friend, neighbor, relative, lover, or even you. My mom used to say, to the best of my recollection, that disability is the one minority that can be joined at any time; I can say with confidence that the same is true of mental illness.
Horror writers, I get that you want to scare people--I write horror too. Which is scarier? Being chased by an “escaped mental patient”, or being feared and ostracized when your brain turns against you? This Mental Health Month, what can you do to change the stigmas?