The Erratic Front: YouTube and Representations of Mental Illness

By Wollheim, Peter | Afterimage, September-October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Erratic Front: YouTube and Representations of Mental Illness


Wollheim, Peter, Afterimage


According to the National Institute of Mental Health, every fourth American adult and every tenth child suffers from a diagnosable mental illness, yet fewer than ten percent seek therapy or treatment. (1) Lack of health insurance coverage aside, consumer activist groups such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) report that cultural stigma inhibits members who fear receiving the indelible labels of "crazy," "wacko," "psycho," or "nuts." As Otto Wahl has documented in his Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness (1995), much of this prejudice and negative stereotyping can be directly traced to media, toys, bumper stickers, and even T-shirts--in other words, the entire image-producing apparatus of modern mass media. As Wahl argues, the media continues to circulate stock figures such as the deranged serial killer, psycho-rapist, child molester, homicidal maniac, loony artist, demented scientist, unstable roommate, rampaging escaped mental patient, insanely jealous lover, sociopathic murderer, and weird psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Such themes have haunted the fine art tradition as well, especially in the anti-rationalist work of Goya, Edvard Munch, and surrealist photographers such as Dora Maar and Man Ray.

This stigmatization persists despite a growing scientific appreciation of mental illnesses as a combination of environmental stressors and neurochemical events. Criminal justice statistics also demonstrate that the most common illnesses--depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia--actually render their sufferers far more prone to becoming victims of violence and theft than of becoming offenders themselves. Moreover, even educated members of the public commonly confuse schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder, depression with grief and sadness, bipolar highs with artistic inspiration, or mental illness with retardation (itself a stigmatizing label). When mental illness is linked with substance abuse, often due to attempts at self-medication, such misconceptions can sway legislators to withhold funding for research and facilities, judges and juries to disregard so-called insanity defenses, employers to not hire those with emotional disabilities, or citizens to petition against the placement of recovery facilities and halfway houses in their own neighborhoods. A case in point, recent electoral history has shown that no candidate can run for national office having had documented experience with mental illness of any sort.

Yet while popular culture and mainstream media have largely contributed to the prejudices against the mentally ill, people living with these disorders have persistently sought out venues for protest and change. NAMI, for example, has worked with broadcasters in the production of public service announcements often funded by government agencies including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). NAMI even conducts its own "StigmaBusting" and media watch activities. The anti-psychiatry movement, populated by those who have suffered abuse at the hands of mental health professionals, systematically use print, radio, and electronic publication with high levels of planning and sophistication, as per organizations such as MindFreedom International. Mental health advocates are now paying increasing attention to the growing number of Web-based video-sharing sites including blip.tv, Google Video, Metacafe, Veoh, and MySpace.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The experimentally growing number of shared video sites varies in terms of technical specification such as file size, downloading software, editorial control over content, fidelity to copyright restrictions, advertising and access costs, and longevity. Some sites act as clearinghouses for several others, digesting and selecting as per the consumer's preferences. Like so much of the Internet, "there is no there there" that allows for definitive analysis, although (again, like much of the Internet) the most frequently visited site is PornoTube. …

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