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Culture Changers (Artists) And The Mentally Ill

I must be naïve. I always get the most hurt and disappointed when good writers show their mentalist attitudes (think racist or sexist but referring to the mentally ill). If a good writer, one who gets on a best seller list like the New York Times or Los Angeles Book Review, were to write something racist or something sexist or homophobic, people would be outraged, but when the same writer allows their prejudices and derogatory feelings about the mentally ill to be present in their work there isn’t a peep or a whimper from an advocacy group and especially not mainstream media.

All the advertising and campaigns to raise awareness about mental illness are not going to do any good if the culture changers (writers, artists, producers, etc.) continue to create creative works that are widely viewed and read in popular culture that contain mentalism, stereotypes, myths and just plain misinformation.

I loved the show Orange is the New Black. A friend of mine suggested I read the book because she thought it was better than the series on Netflix. I bought the book on Amazon, and when it arrived I let it sit in my “to read” pile for several months. I just finished it yesterday, and although the writing was good, and the author, Piper Kerman, hit the lottery in terms of new writers (best seller and a series on Netflix), which I would normally find inspiration from, I’m not walking away from Kerman’s book with any good feelings about her success though.

First of all, it is shocking to me that Kerman was in a federal prison for drug trafficking, and passes so much judgement on people who suffer from a mental illness (through no fault of their own). Someone with a mental illness is “lesser” or to be looked down upon by someone who wanted a little excitement in their life so they became involved in the international drug trade? Where is the insight? I have schizophrenia and what Kerman did to land herself in a federal prison doesn’t exactly sound reasonable to me, yet Kerman makes a clear distinction in her book about those with mental health problems and herself and her friends. Here are a few quotes from her book:

“Psych ward. That was my overwhelming first impression…Women, disheveled and stooped, blinked at us like moles. Although there was nothing playful about the place, it had an infantilized, nursery-school vibe.”

“…and those who were not already crazy were acting pretty wacko, driven nuts by rage and instability.”

“We served each other as a barrier against the freaks, of which this small unit had an astonishing array. In addition to poor suicidal Connie, there were several bipolar arsonists, an angry and volatile bank robber…”

In a letter that Kerman received from a bank robbing friend of hers that is included in the book, I take the following sentence:

“I laughed like a mental patient when you told me…”

I realize the book is over 200 pages and I have taken out just a few sentences, but they are powerful sentences and if they had been written about race, or sexual orientation the author would never have been given a free pass. This is just one example of the hypocrisy in the arts in terms of defending minorities and pushing for diversity. The mentally ill are a minority and a very vulnerable minority that is rarely protected or defended. Mentalism goes unchecked all the time.

Another example of the inconstancies in the world of art is the recent outrage by the poetry community and the Asian community about a white poet (Michael Derrick Hudson) who used a Chinese name in order to (in his opinion) increase his chances of publication. People called this “yellowface.”  I went to a writing conference where a panel taught on how to write from an “altered perspective” (read mental illness) and be believable. Personally, I was outraged by the panel because there are plenty of mentally ill writers out there without having other writers “create a world where they are mentally ill.” Like every other group, we would like to tell our own stories and have our own voices heard.  Having a group demand to have their own experiences represented (voice heard) is obvious in regards to race, LGBT and others, but when it comes to the mentally ill, people feel free to speak for us and no one raises any questions.

The mentalism and psychophobia of people are not just present in the arts. It is not at all acceptable to dress in blackface (rightfully so) but most Halloween outlets are selling mental patient costumes, and that is considered by so many to be perfectly acceptable even though the rate of suicide in this country is increasing. People want those of us with a mental illness to seek treatment so we can avoid tragedies, but until mental illness isn’t a joke, isn’t something to look down upon or mock, people are going to refuse treatment out of shame, humiliation and fear.

As a writer, I would hope this change would come from the artists I sit beside in conferences all over the country. I would hope those people would begin to change their language and attitudes because if they did, the rest of the country would slowly follow.

Leonard Zhukovsky /

Culture Changers (Artists) And The Mentally Ill

Rebecca Chamaa

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APA Reference
Chamaa, R. (2015). Culture Changers (Artists) And The Mentally Ill. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Oct 2015
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