This marks my third blog about ‘The Mermaid,’ a film by Italome Ohikhuare that is masquerading as some sort of (warped) ‘love story’ between a sister (Sirah) and her troubled brother (Deji). But this post isn’t really about ‘The Mermaid.’ (See the bottom of this post for a summary of the film and its many problems.) It’s about us. Me and you. It’s about us together. It’s about our power(lessness) as a community and a movement(?). It’s about my anger, and the anger I hope you hold, too.
We spend a lot of time in this community complaining about our lack of voice and power. We blame the news outlets and their coverage; so blind that it ignores our stories, and research that’s been readily accessible for years. We blame people like Representative Tim Murphy and his fear-fueled political agenda. We blame ‘Big Pharma.’ We blame ‘the system.’ We blame anybody but ourselves.
And that’s all very real. It’s so real that most of us around these parts have had a taste of it up-close-and-personal, and not all of us have survived to tell our stories. (And still more of us will die all too soon after we do.) But what of the power we are so quick to take from ourselves?
In December of 2015, I had an exchange with Harry Lynch, Managing Director of the Mental Health Channel (MHC). I shared with him (and a few other MHC Executives) several concerns about their channel that claims to be ‘changing minds’ about ‘mental health.’ (See my post here for more on the channel itself.) One of my central complaints was about ‘The Mermaid’; a racist, sexist, ableist short that plays on every worst stereotype one could imagine into a young black man diagnosed with Schizophrenia.
At the end of the call, Harry said that he wouldn’t consider taking it down just because of my complaints, but would contemplate taking action if he heard from more people than just myself. I ran with that, and wrote a blog on the ‘Campaign for Real Change in Mental Health Policy’ website. Several people wrote in. Many of them carbon copied me on the e-mails they sent, or posted in solidarity on Facebook once their letters had been successfully submitted.
I waited a month, and when I (shockingly) saw no action had been taken, I e-mailed Harry for an update. On Friday, February 12th, Harry replied as follows:
“We did receive a few emails about The Mermaid but not enough to consider taking it down.”
Now, clearly, Harry and I are operating on substantially different definitions of the term ‘a few.’ (I e-mailed him back to ask how many would be ‘enough’ to merit consideration, but have received no response as of yet.) A couple of conversations ago, I also told him that ‘how many’ shouldn’t really matter, if he’s true to his word of wanting to improve the overall state of things, and those primarily speaking up have been on the ‘oppressed’ end of oppressive systems, because it’s the responsibility of anyone who wants to be an ally for change to pay special attention to the voice of those they’re seeking to represent. (He loosely seemed to agree.) However, the truth is that he’s right about one thing when it comes to how many notes were sent his way: I feel confident that he didn’t receive nearly enough.
What do I mean? I feel confident that Harry received dozens of e-mails. But consider this: ‘Body Politics’ is the least read blog I’ve ever written for Mad in America and it currently has 714 reads. (Maybe it will earn a few more with this post?) But, if even half of the people who read my least read post were to write an e-mail to the Mental Health Channel, that would have been well over 300. Surely enough to make some sort of impression, I’d think.
My most-read post, ‘Born to Sense’, has over 9000 reads. Imagine if half of them were to send a quick note? (Maybe Harry would at least say he’d received a ‘handful’ rather than just a few?)
The truth is, my blogs rarely garner less than 1000 hits. My last blog (Suicidal Tendencies), made 1000 reads in less than six hours. What if even a fraction of them were willing to take some action?
But most of us don’t. Hey, I’m guilty of the same. We’re tired. We’ve got too much else to focus on, and some of it feels (and is) so much more immediately important than some ridiculous short film on yet another misguided website. Perhaps most of all, many of us are feeling at least a little bit hopeless and reluctant to bother, because, well, what’s the point? Who wants to try when they’re sure they’ll just be ignored again? At some point, even the smallest rebuke or dismissal begins to feel huge.
Yet, I have to wonder how much we could change if we truly did stand together on something. Personally, I wonder not only about what we could change, but what we’ve already missed out on affecting because we’ve assumed ourselves into even more powerlessness than we ever truly needed to own. Apathy may just be our own worst enemy.
I have no proof or way of guaranteeing what we could accomplish if we all stood together in some more cohesive manner. But I I can tell you this: Locally I see projects by the same names and under the same funding sources regularly claim that they ‘can’t do’ certain things because they are powerless under the thumb of those that drive them. Yet, the only difference between them and the groups that are doing precisely those supposedly forbidden activities is often that they simply didn’t stop to ask permission, and never dreamt that what they were doing was anything but exactly the right thing. I certainly know that the community of which I am a part (the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community) wouldn’t be half of what it is today, if we did not operate in exactly that way.
‘The Mermaid’ is just some little film made by a misguided woman that at least claims to have meant well. It’s hardly the most important battle we have before us. Yet, every bit of propaganda that re-enforces damaging stereotypes and myths about psychiatric diagnosis, or serves to push any brand of force should be addressed as fiercely as the next if we are to have any hope for real change.
And perhaps most importantly, this seems an important testing ground: If we can’t stand together long enough or loudly enough to send a clear message to the Mental Health Channel to take down a film that so blatantly pushes racism, sexism and psychiatric oppression then maybe we don’t deserve to be heard. (And, by the way, what sort of momentum might we gain if we were successful?)
At least one person has already asked me why I’d ever expect the Mental Health Channel to listen to us, and the truth is that I’m not sure that I do. But what makes me most angry and hopeless is not that at all… If I’m honest what makes me most angry (furious really) Is that I at least want to be a part of a community and a world that will loudly and clearly help me try.
Will you? (I ask this not just of those of you who identify as having personal experience with psychiatric diagnosis and the ‘mental health’ system, but also those of you who are professors, psychiatrists, therapists, and more. Share this with your students, your colleagues, and your friends. Demonstrate your allyship not just through the intellectual act of writing the facts and naming the research, but in taking action alongside us.)
* * * * *
Please sign the petition to take down ‘The Mermaid’ here, and don’t forget to share this blog and the petition on all of your social media accounts!
You can also e-mail Harry directly at [email protected].
More about the ‘The Mermaid’ (originally posted on the ‘Campaign for Real Change in Mental Health Policy’ site here):
‘The Mermaid’ is a about a young woman and her relationship with her brother who is diagnosed with schizophrenia. It is reportedly based on Italome’s real-life experiences with her real-life brother, for whom she claims this piece is a ‘gift’.
The film is an unfortunate 13-minute advertisement for Involuntary Outpatient Commitment (aka Assisted Outpatient Treatment, AOT, or Murphy’s favorite pet), that attempts to paint itself as a “moving love story about a young woman torn between her blossoming relationship with her boyfriend and her chaotic but endearing relationship with her brother.”
‘Love’ is the furthest thing from my mind as I watch the main character (Sirah) interacting with her boyfriend (Jay) who’s attempting to manipulate her into bed, or her violent and erratic brother (Deji) who she screams repeatedly “just needs his pills.” In fact, this film is troubling at many levels both from a standpoint of racism and psychiatric oppression. Here’s a brief list of the whys:
- The film re-enforces dangerous racial stereotypes: Deji is a young black man *wearing a hoodie* and is repeatedly painted as violent and frightening, particularly toward Jay (who is a white man). There is little that could make this film any less racially sensitive given today’s climate.
- Except this: Jay (the white, professionally dressed lawyer boyfriend who is physically attacked by Deji) rescues him from drowning at the end of the film.
- The film promotes significant misunderstandings about how psychiatric drugs work in both the short and long-term: Sirah screams (more than once) that Deji will be alright if he just gets his pills. However, unless we’re speaking of tranquilizer darts (or other heavy sedatives) and unless we’re defining ‘alright’ as ‘incapacitated by sleep,’ there is no pill that would have such immediate effect. Furthermore, Sirah’s screechy insistence re-enforces the erroneous belief that psychotropics are the key, ignoring all the research that now suggests that they often lead to little improvement and not infrequently can make things worse.
- The film promotes the idea that people with psychiatric diagnoses like schizophrenia are scary and dangerous: Although there’s little real-word research to suggest that people with psychiatric diagnoses are at greater risk of violence than the average person, Deji has his hands around Jay’s throat three times within the first five minutes of The Mermaid. This is followed immediately by Jay yelling that he needs to be “Baker Acted” and suggesting that he’s going to “kill someone.”
- The film promotes hopelessness and perpetuates the idea that people with diagnoses like schizophrenia will forever be tormented and dangerous: Hopeless statistics and propaganda about the schizophrenia diagnosis are tacked on to the end of the film, and the promotional website spouts this little gem at the conclusion of its ‘about’ section: “But the most unexpected moment comes at the end of the film, when they’re all confronted with…the tragic reality that this story, just like schizophrenia, can’t have a happy ending.” (See the film’s full website here: http://www.themermaidfilm.com )
- The film perpetuates the idea that there’s psychiatric drugs and hospitalization or there’s nothing, and that force is an inevitability: Apparently, Sirah’s been trying to support Deji in almost complete isolation, and the film (however unintentionally) paints that and the forced hospitalization he experiences by the end not as two extremes on a fairly broad spectrum, but as point A to point B on a two-point scale. In fact, her boyfriend reassures her that she “did the right thing,” and had “no other choice.” The truth is, though, that there are many choices in how to support people who are going through extreme states, and great harm done through the use of force. Meanwhile, the use of force, while often an act of desperation by otherwise decent people, represents a failure of the system, and not an inevitability of some hopeless ‘brain disease.’ This film does a real disservice by failing to represent any of that.
- As an added bonus, it paints women as shrill and helpless sex objects: Jay seems to be angling to get Sirah into bed at the start of the film. By its conclusion, as Sirah is once again helplessly screaming, Jay must come to her rescue not once (when her brother is drowning), but twice (when she’s crying inconsolably and invites him to spend the night as he’d clearly wanted to do right from the start). Sure, she also has a moment (after Deji is rescued from the ocean by Jay) where she slaps and pins her brother to the ground, but that moment is so unbelievable it’s just plain bizarre.
Special thanks to Leah Harris for the #DrowntheMermaid tag!
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.