Is Mental Health A Joke?
It happens every single day. On days like any other, not special occasions.
To take a recent example, on one such ordinary day I was sitting in a café with some friends. We had been rehearsing hard all day and we were on a well-deserved lunch break. Now, as is ordinary among students, we spent the majority of the lunch break talking about what had happened that morning; moments that made us laugh, bits of script that went wrong, and when we messed up the music. One thing we talked about is the funny way in which someone said a line. He hadn’t used any consonants and it was a bit high pitched so we had all laughed at this screechy wash of vowels that came out of his mouth. As we reminisced about this over lunch time, all chuckling away, he said “Oh god it was so funny, I sounded like I belonged in a psychiatric unit.” This was met with roars of laughter.
Now I’m all up for a joke. I’m not easily offended and I have my own special brand of self-depreciative humour. But this comment did make me sit up in unease.
The reason being that I recently had the opportunity (NOT the misfortune) to visit a real live psychiatric unit. An adolescent psychiatric unit to be precise. This fabled place that has been christened time and time again as “a loony bin” or “a mental hospital,” where the characters all are depicted in white coats hugging their knees and rocking backwards and forwards. I’ve seen one, it’s a real place!
And here’s the big thing; the building looks just like any other. The hallways and communal spaces (in this case) would not have looked out of place in a youth hostel. The characters we imagine? They’re real people. In this case they were real teenagers, some of them almost my age, wearing jeans and t shirts and mascara, talking in ordinary voices ordinary words that ordinary people say.
This is where the joke made me sit up and take notice. He was comparing his blurted out “aooroo iiiiiiikeeeeeee naaaaaa!” with these people, even though it was said in the silliest of voices and unlike anything that has come out of any human being’s mouth ever. I asked myself why he thought that people in psychiatric units speak like that.
The answer is that when we make these jokes, we actually have no idea what we’re talking about. When we say “Sorry I’m a bit OCD about this,” or “The X factor results made me so depressed,” or even “He’s driving me mad!” we are making the assumption that people fall into two categories. Clinically insane to the point of being unable to self-sufficiently function and communicate, or ‘normal’. We expect that anyone who has to go to a psychiatric unit, must have something noticeably wrong with them, which is why people think that something that sounds abnormal sounds like “it belongs in a psychiatric unit”.
This is not the case. It’s not the case that if you’re mad you have to go to the psychiatric unit and if you’re just “a little bit OCD” then you’re fine to live in the “real world”. We assume that if a person can walk and talk normally, then their condition is not a serious one.
There are some things society doesn’t tolerate, and there are plenty of racial and homophobic slur words that we shun. We as a society would frown on any person that made casual jokes about someone in a wheelchair, or who had a condition that visibly affected their cognitive abilities. And I wonder why it’s different with mental health.
I think it’s probably because when we can’t see or feel an illness, we struggle to understand it or talk about it, and therefore no one can truly understand what it is.
I’m not going to go on a preachy rant about how we should never use mental health as a joke. It’s nothing people haven’t heard before. I will say this though. We should definitely think harder before making jokes about mental health. It’s important to actually know what you’re talking about. So if for example you’re not aware that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety related illness that affects some people really seriously, then how can you know what it is you’re casually mocking? It’s important to remember that what some people have the benefits of only having to joke about, some people actually have to live with.