I watch Glee. I have watched the show from its very first episode last year and I believe Glee is socially relevant in many ways. I will say the show brings to light many issues and experiences that either most of us had or knew of during our high school years. Many of those experiences were painful, many happy. It certainly depended on so many variables and whether we found a niche – a group of people that we could relate to and feel like our true self. Glee has tackled many “hot topics” and last week’s episode was especially powerful and respectful as it focused on Kurt, who is proudly out, but feeling very alone, until he finds a friend who affirms him.
So last night, November 16, 2010, as I watched Glee, I had my breath taken away. I watched in disbelief as Gwyneth Paltrow (in the role of a substitute teacher), dressed as Mary Todd Lincoln, and spoke about Abe Lincoln as gay and herself as bipolar. She then proceeded to talk to a teapot and acted as if she were holding a baby, claiming she did not love him. She then also told the class to "practice their bipolar rants".
For those of you who saw the show, most likely my description will orient you. For those of you who did not see the show, you may wish to visit Fox’s website to view a clip of the episode. I have provided the link: http://www.fox.com/glee/full-episodes/674574657001. Last night, after the show, I sent an email to Fox Television sharing my feelings about the episode. I also sent an email to NAMI’s Stigmabusters page to pass along this instance of stigma. I have written about stigma before, and firmly believe that as counselors, we have a responsibility to advocate for our clients and for the fair, respectful, and ethical depiction of any person that has a mental illness.
Just three days ago, I watched “Unlisted”: A Story of Schizophrenia by Delany Ruston, MD that chronicled Dr. Delany’s experiences growing up with a father who had schizophrenia. Dr. Delany’s film is a powerful reminder that we are human beings first, not an illness, not a disorder. That as human beings, we should be defined by who we are, and the uniqueness of our stories. Also that we recognize life can be cloaked in powerlessness and sadness. The movie teaches us about the impact of mental illness on friends, families and individuals, and we learn that those connections can be fragile.
In the span of three days, I witnessed the dichotomy of views and beliefs about mental illness. How is it that in our society, we can continue to belittle and make fun of people to get a laugh or be “edgy”? Why is that okay? How can there be such a broad disconnect between those that “get it” and those “that don’t”. It is my hope that Ryan Murphy, the writer and producer of Glee will be open to hearing the concerns of those that have bipolar disorder and dialogue with them about the show and have an opportunity to meet their friends, family members and learn about the good work of advocacy organizations. Change occurs when we talk to each other, when we get to know each other, and when we support each other. Today, media has the power to persuade and legitimize all kinds of beliefs. It is very important that when those beliefs or portrayals are incorrect, we stand up, we raise our voices and dispel the myths. As counselors, we need to look at and face our own mistaken beliefs, and truly, every day, do the right thing.
I encourage you to dialogue with me now about this issue. Let me know how you advocate and dispel mistaken beliefs and outright misrepresentations.
Kathy Renfree is a counselor in a community mental health setting, teaches in a graduate counseling program as needed, and is looking forward to building a private practice.