Mental Health Activism Cannot Hinge On Rejecting The ‘Crazy Person’ Horror Trope
Content warning: Self-harm and ableism.
Conjure up, in your mind, what a stereotypical “crazy” person looks and acts like. You probably picture someone talking to themselves, maybe scratching their skin, looking unclean or tired, rocking back and forth, etc. I know, for me, a dozen horror movie characters come to mind.
I remember when every October, my friends and I would scout out the very best haunted houses, always coming across the haunted “insane asylum” online. I’ll let you guess what the commercial video was like and how the “patients” acted. These portrayals are perceived by the public, at least from my experience, as the far end of the spectrum. They are considered the extreme, fairly unrealistic in terms of real people with real illnesses. After all, it’s just an exaggerated stereotype, right?
As serious as illnesses like anxiety and depression can be, I typically hear things like this: “Just because someone has depression doesn’t mean they’re crazy,” in reference to the aforementioned stereotype of a mentally ill person. That image is rejected as a means to reassure the people around you, as a way to say, “Don’t worry, I have a mental illness, but it’s not like that.”
And of course, I get it. That stereotype contributes to the stigma surrounding mental health a lot, however, using it as a contrast is more harmful than you might think. There must be a better way to self-advocate and educate others on what you’re struggling with.
There are a lot of coping mechanisms, behaviors, and symptoms that come with mental illness. They’re very unique to each person and each illness while also depending on the severity (among other factors.) Still, I’ve noticed that these symptoms tend to fall into a dichotomy. There are the more understood symptoms, and then there are, well, the others. The ones we see in the movies. This separation ultimately contributes even further to the stigma that we as a community are working so hard to fight.
See, the stereotypical “crazy person” is meant to be read as dangerous to others, as someone to be feared. It is an image that so many people with mental health issues make an effort to separate themselves from. We often forget that there are real people, not fictional, not characters, who have a mental illness and do exhibit these behaviors. I should know. I’m one of them.
I’ve spent so much of my life trying to push that stereotype out of the minds of the people I love, explaining that I may have the same condition as that scary movie character, but I’m not really crazy. Then, I began to notice times when I’m talking back to my own intrusive thoughts out loud, dissociating to the point where I actually am scratching at my skin involuntarily, struggling with hygiene, and yes, even rocking back and forth in times of severe (and sometimes mild) stress.
But even still, I’ve been fighting an exhausting inner battle between seeing myself in these negative images of what it looks like to be mentally ill and the need to defy stereotypes, to protect the people in my life from seeing me that way. After all, there is so much more to me than the things I struggle with. These moments where I find myself coping in ways that appear “visibly crazy” are moments soaked in painful shame and self-hatred. I wish I could separate myself from the tropes, but sometimes I simply can’t.
The stigma against mental health doesn’t just manifest as assuming depression is laziness or minimizing the symptoms of OCD down to cleanliness. It goes much further than that. It’s painting a picture of someone with a more visible mental illness and deeming that as scary, as a horror trope, as something to separate yourself from as much as you can when trying to explain your depression or anxiety to a loved one. Fighting the stigma has to include humanizing individuals who happen to behave in ways which mirror the stereotype and rejecting the idea that they are inherently dangerous. Yes, the symptoms can be scary, but mostly for the individual experiencing them and for their loved ones who worry and care, but that’s not the kind of scary that the horror trope is meant to suggest.
There are so many important facets to fighting the stigma surrounding mental illness, but for it to be functional activism, it must extend across mild anxiety, severe schizophrenia, and everything in between. It must account for the kid curled up, rocking back and forth, muttering to themselves during an episode. If they are not advocated for, but instead pushed away as an outlier, an exception, a comparison used to reassure, then the stigma is alive and well.
A frantic effort to distance yourself from the stereotypes does not aid you in combatting the stigma of mental illness. What you’re really doing is shifting the shame more heavily onto others, others like me.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, please know you are not alone. However your illness is manifesting, whether it’s neurosis like anxiety and compulsions, or psychosis-like hallucinations, you are valid, and your pain is real. While there is most definitely a spectrum of social acceptance when it comes to different symptoms, there is also a world of support and community no matter what your situation is. We have a long way to go when it comes to reducing the stigma of all mental health conditions, but I believe one day, there will be no more shame, no remaining reasons to set a harsh contrast between different levels of severity for the sake of being seen.