Romanticizing Mental Illness

How Victim Culture Rewards Dysfunction

When I watched the trailer for the new docuseries Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry are creating for Apple TV+, my heart sank. I began to wonder: are we on a trajectory for romanticizing mental illness in the same way we have begun romanticizing fatness?

Supersizing Therapeutic Culture

As our “therapeutic culture” has given way to a “victim culture,” our society has begun rewarding dysfunction, with the result that everything from being gluten intolerant to needing a therapist has become trendy. Now there is even a movement to make obesity trendy, and to recast overweight individuals as victims of cultural stereotyping.

Much of the changing perception about obesity comes from the academic field of “Fat Studies” which aims to situate obesity discourse (i.e., the treatment of fatness as a problem) with opposition to fat people, and thus to discredit the former through the objectionableness of the latter. It stigmatizes those who believe obesity is unhealthy or less attractive by trying to show that such beliefs emerge out of bigotry against fat people, prejudice against bodily difference, and a medicalizing mentality. Fat Studies are an offshoot of “Fat Feminism” which associates anti-fatness with misogyny, sexism, and fat-phobia.

Fat Studies has raised much-needed attention to unhealthy diet culture, our society’s obsession with media-driven, unrealistic ideals of beauty, and unscientific stereotypes which lead us to assume that being overweight is always a function of over-eating. Yet the Fat Studies approach overcorrects these excesses by attempting to impose fat-normativity onto society. Whereas once people would aspire to healthy weight-management, there now exists a growing cult of people who aspire to become as fat as possible, and can draw on a collection of fat-centric postmodern philosophers to support their supersized aspirations.

A similar over-correction may now be taking place in the arena of mental and emotional health.

Dysfunction as a Way of Life

I am no stranger to discussion of mental health, having written a book that has four chapters on the subject. When writing my book, I went deep into self-acceptance, vulnerability, and listening skills, because I wanted people who are struggling with emotional pain to feel they have a voice and do not need to be stigmatized. At the same time, I am keenly aware that certain types of misguided efforts to address dysfunction may make these problems worse. There is a very fine line between stigmatizing those who are mentally and emotionally ill (bad), to giving them a voice (good) to romanticizing mental illness (bad) and promoting a victim mentality (very bad).

Earlier in the year I observed that Oprah Winfrey and the Sussex Royals are leading the way in a “disclosure culture” that rewards victims, trivializes feelings, and encourages emotional infantilism. If this continues unabated, then a celebrity cult could begin developing around sharing stories of mental and emotional dysfunction. Being unbalanced might even become simply a way of life, while being depressed may even bring the privileged status of belonging to a protected minority.

How the Fight for Mental and Emotional Wellness Could be Lost

As a society, we now understand the causes of mental and emotional illness more than ever before, and this has led to huge gains. The confluence between psychology, neuroscience, and technology has resulted in a number of protocols that are revolutionizing the treatment of mental and emotional illness. Yet there are troubling trends, now in their embryonic stage, that could undermine these advances. Specifically, there are four ways the cult of victimization could reverse hard-won gains in the battle against mental and emotional illness. If any or all of the following conditions are realized over the next 20 years, then illness-levels and suicides will start to skyrocket astronomically.

  1. Mental and Emotional Illness Redefined as Victimhood. A victim cult could develop around mental and emotional illness, with the result that people begin cashing in on being victim of illness in the same way that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were able to cash in on being victims of racism.
  2. Mental and Emotional Illness Recast as Lifestyle. Society could move from a focus on recovery to mainstreaming depression and other illnesses as a lifestyle. While this might bring some benefits in helping to increase accommodation for people who need help, it could also disincentivize proper functioning.
  3. A “Coming Out” Movement Develops Around Mental and Emotional Dysfunction. As high-profile celebrities and sports stars increasingly “come out” to admit depression and other forms of illness, these disorders could become romanticized in much the same way suicide was romanticized following Marilyn Monroe’s death. Suffering from depression could become trendy, with the result that there would no longer be strong cultural pressure towards resiliency.
  4. Health Advocacy Recast as “Medicalizing.” Mental and emotional health advocates could be ostracized for “medicalizing,” on the assumption that “discourses” about mental and emotional normativity are actually proxies for power structures. This would result in funds that could be invested in treatment and research being allocated towards accommodating illness as a lifestyle choice.

The philosophical framework for #4 is substantially already in place. James Lindsay explains how the emerging concept of “medicalizing” is creating a conceptual template for disputing the distinction between normality and abnormality.

“If there is some official or scientific reason to believe something is abnormal, especially in a negative way, then there is an authoritative justification to stigmatize people who identify as that status, which in turn maintains the power dynamics that generate dominance and oppression…. Viewing medicalizing narratives and discourses this way is more or less a direct derivative of the Foucauldian notion of biopower, which comes from postmodern philosophy. In short, biopower is a concept forwarded by Foucault as the application of scientific discourses (especially those in biology, medicine, and psychology) to control the population by telling them what is and isn’t true in an authoritative way.… Medical narratives, in particular, are used primarily to identify dissidents, label them abnormal, and then justify using medical treatments to make them more normal.”

People who are part of weight-loss groups, mental health groups, and addiction recovery groups may rightly feel these ideology-laden approaches trivialize the important issues they battle with.

From Romanticization to Trivialization

If mental and emotional illness becomes romanticized with its own version of a celebrity-driven “coming out” movement, then those who struggle with debilitating anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts may feel overlooked, or may even feel belittled because “hey, everybody feels this way.” We saw this happen with the phenomenon of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is a serious problem in relationships and can be even worse than domestic violence, yet once it became an umbrella concept to encompass everything-my-partner-does-that-makes-me-feel-uncomfortable, then true victims found their stories marginalized.

Let’s not make the same mistake with mental and emotional illness.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and has a Master's in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant with the Fellowship of St. James and is a frequent contributor to Salvo Magazine and Touchstone Magazine. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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