Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Is American Horror Story Stigmatizing or Just Silly?

By Doug Bradley, NAMI HelpLine Coordinator

The new season of American Horror Story is set on the grounds of a 1960’s psychiatric hospital and, of course, uses imagery of a hopefully bygone era of psychiatry as practiced in a large, dehumanizing forensic facility. As the title indicates, this show is meant to scare or at least disconcert the viewer. Although there are many themes in the first episode, including the role of women, religion and sexuality, the show also uses classic horror props such as strait jackets, locked rooms, and forced electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

The staff members are generally portrayed as dysfunctional, at best. The clergy in the Catholic-run hospital all have personal issues and one doctor seems to be conducting brutal experiments. When patients “act out” the staff immediately retaliate with heavy-duty tranquilizers, restraints and ECT without any muscle relaxant or consent.

The plot is most concerned with what society considers “normal,” and psychiatry represents society’s control of “abnormal” behavior. As such, the people sent to the hospital for treatment do not seem dangerous, at least in relation to the staff, merely different. For example, a white man in the facility is suspected of murder, but his true “crime” was marrying a black woman. Likewise, a female reporter investigating conditions at the hospital is committed for being a lesbian. While cases like these did occur, to medicine’s shame, there are no characters in the episode being treated for serious mental illness such as depression or schizophrenia.

By some standards, the show could be considered stigmatizing. It does reinforce the image of psychiatric hospitals as using torture and retribution, but little in the way of treatment. While such actions happened, and still occur, the show portrays only examples of cruel and barbaric behavior by clinicians.

One could also consider the use of straitjackets, restraints, and involuntary ECT as offensive and insensitive. These things are typically used to elicit fear in viewers, especially when the characters are wrongly subject to them.

So, is the show stigmatizing? On the whole, it seems so over-the-top that viewers, even in the mental health community, might have trouble taking it seriously. Furthermore, from a consumer standpoint, the patients appear to be the least troubled occupants of the facility. However, the imagery and scenes might be traumatic to anyone who has ever been abused, neglected by the mental health system. For clips of the episode visit the FX channel’s website.  Perhaps the only ones offended might be clinicians, although even their portrayals are exaggerated almost beyond belief.

In short, American Horror Story has an intentionally improbable plot on many levels. While it can strike a nerve with anyone who has been hospitalized or knows someone who has, especially in past decades, it is almost a spoof of life 50 years ago. Even so, it will be nice when psychiatry, even with all its faults, is no longer used as a symbol for all that is wrong in society.

Viewers will likely have a variety of reactions to this show. Some may not be bothered at all, yet others may be greatly offended. If you watch the show, or parts of it from the link above, let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.


Anonymous said...

This time of year we are bound to see movies like these in theatres, as well as people dressed up in ways that shout "STIGMA"!
We will never be able to stop this in movies or Halloween costumes, etc. That doesn't mean we have to watch the movies or wear the costumes.
If we are going this far, then is it wrong to watch a war movie or tell a child he cannot dress up as a Marine, or any other United Service personnel?
I enjoy all kinds of movies.. some are in the horror/scary genre.. they can be entertaining and make you think. An example: Sixth Sense ("I see dead people").. it held me captive..and I figured out the ending when the wedding ring dopped on the floor.
Can't we stick to more positive things? Like people who overcome there obstacles? Or some of the meds and therapy that help people? Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The images are destructive even if not real. They add to popular culture where mental hospital people are associated with violence and horror and people are afraid of treatment so they don't get any. But ECT works. Medicine works. The show sounds like Scientology. It's stigma.

wolfj74 said...

After having heard the premise of this season of AHS, I was expecting something a lot worse: but like you said, it's hard to take seriously, and probably doesn't represent anyone's actual image of mental health care... That said, I do think that "asylums" are an overused horror film trope, especially considering that we're not getting media messages that balance this image.

AHS:Asylum isn't the worst thing I've ever seen, but in the grand scheme of media and mental health, it's not what we need right now.

Renee a Consumer in Madison WI said...

Maybe there could be a disclaimer reminding viewers that what they are about to see.is FICTIONAL and in no way represents current practice?

Nico said...

I usually get offended easily but this show .. I just believe it is fictional and it hasnt' bothered me at all.. and i have been sexually abused by mental health professionals in san bernardino county .. and that is all my medical will cover for mental health and we have no Nami here and the only club house i was recommended to was the county where i was sexually abused .. that counselor isn't there any more but i have flash backs that is way worse than a TV show and no one does anything about that ....

The Bipolar Pianist said...

I’ve only seen one episode, but it’s hard to take seriously when they’re portraying some of the most extreme situations a writer can possible concoct. Even with the lack of any real mental illness, it is always frustrating to feel like we’re all being put on display for America’s amusement. I’m tired of mental illness equaling scary unknown possibly live threatening individuals. I have a hard enough time trying to get my family to understand without this kind of crap interfering. Having said that, I’ve seen worse on television like Law and Order SVU, which I believe always portrays the mentally ill in the worst possible way. We all need to start writing our own TV shows and movie scripts since Hollywood seems to struggling so much with this.

Anonymous said...

Most of the people who attend our therapy in Clapham would always claim that they are in a "crazy house" full of crazy people, which is potentially destructive. I understand that movies are a form of entertainment but could they mellow down a little?

Anonymous said...

It's a TV show. Anything bad or good about it is irrelevant. You like it, then watch, you don't then watch something else. It's pretty stupid to look deeper than this.