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What Jason Russell's Mental Breakdown Shows Us about Ourselves

Mar 22 2012
Our churches still have much to learn about mental illness.

It was the latest installment in a blitz of headline-grabbing publicity for Invisible Children—but it was a story they never intended. During almost two weeks of astounding success for their new-media publicity blitz, Kony 2012 attracted plenty of controversy and dissenting voices. But perhaps nothing could damage the credibility of the Invisible Children campaign as much as their founder's run-in with San Diego police, who last week confronted an allegedly agitated and naked Jason Russell ranting on the sidewalk near Pacific Beach.

Apparently the San Diego police determined Russell was not a criminal threat but did present a danger to himself or others—a designation that allows law-enforcement officials to seek evaluation in a mental health facility on behalf of a detainee. Police brought Russell to one such facility, where he presumably underwent evaluation of his mental condition, and where, if necessary, he might receive treatment. The police response suggests there was a strong possibility that Russell was in the throes of a symptomatic mental illness. Writing for The Atlantic, brain-injury physician Ford Vox concurs. Although not confirmed, the introduction of a possible mental illness—and a public "breakdown"—has taken this story into a new dimension. It has also introduced a new source of fuel for public ridicule.

Regardless of the truth about this incident and Russell's health, the incident elicits echoes of a common pattern in public life: the voyeuristic and cruel response to the public breakdown, usually followed by shame, humiliation, attempts at damage control, and a hospital stay for "exhaustion." In our society, few things are considered as shameful as mental illness. Consider the cases of Demi Moore, Britney Spears, Charlie Sheen, and Mariah Carey. If celebrities are publicly skewered for their vulnerabilities, imagine how ordinary citizens are treated.

I should know. My mom has the disorder schizophrenia. After she began to have breakdowns—some of them public—when I was 14, I carried with me the sense that I was "infected" by association, and I was deeply scarred by the rejection and potential for rejection I felt in society at large and in the church. This is a kind of suffering you just aren't supposed to talk about. And because of the general lack of conversation about mental illness, for decades my family and I felt very much alone in our suffering.

People with mental illness are the butt of jokes, the subjects of terrifying movies and amusement park rides, and sources of entertainment that seem to assume they are mythical creatures—like leprechauns and unicorns—so no one should be offended.

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