Friday, October 02, 2009

What do we need at the grocery store, son? (Grey's Anatomy episode misrepresents Schizophrenia. Shocking?)

So, I mentioned some time in recent history that I'd make a point of documenting the offensive representations of mentally ill people - rather, misrepresentations - that I see on TV and in films here more often. As promised, I'm here to tell you about another show that ticked me off. Unfortunately, it's a show I really enjoy watching, Grey's Anatomy. It wasn't the most offensive representation of a person with Schizophrenia I've seen, but it wasn't good either.

I am going to guess that the idea with this episode was to showcase the difficulty that a mentally ill person's caregivers (if they should have a caregiver because they need one, which most of us don't), have due to their loved one's illness. That was the story line. This woman came into the hospital with heart trouble, and also with her son in tow. Her son was a young adult, who, she said immediately, was a "paranoid schizophrenic". Kind of like how you're a "cancerous person" when you're dealing with cancer, right? Oh, I forgot. Nobody discriminates against cancer. But that language is not the fault of a TV show, obviously. That language is our whole culture's fault. The problem I have with the TV show is that it went on to present the story that this mom literally spends all of her time taking care of her son, since he's a "Paranoid Schizophrenic". Her husband left her because of it. She's been sick for months, but she couldn't do anything about her own health because she's too busy taking care of her son.

And this is how she takes care of him: "What do we need from the grocery store?" she asks him. This is to "distract" him from the voices. I was laughing at that part. First of all, he never told her he was hearing voices, and he wasn't talking out loud to them, but apparently when your son has Schizophrenia that makes you able to read his mind since it's so messed up and all that the illness is transparent. Then, the story goes on, and the mom is diagnosed with a heart problem that requires immediate surgery. "I can't get surgery!" she claims, "I have to take care of my son!". Yeah, but in the real world, there are these little things call pills. When we take the little pill out of the little bottle, and put it in our little mouth, magically, we might not need a FULL-TIME 24/HOUR BABYSITTER anymore when we are a full-grown adult. For crying out loud, how many times do you need to make the world think that people with mental illnesses are so dysfunctional they're not even like real people at all???
And what is the point of acting like medication either can't help this person or just doesn't work well enough to help him enough that he can function at all?? What is the purpose of that kind of representation??

Apparently, the purpose was to let people who could relate to the mom feel better about the fact that they have a mentally ill family member. Because of course, there are no audience members watching this show who actually ARE the person with the mental illness! After all, we're so dysfunctional, we can't even watch a TV show! We're also not buying anything at any stores, so it doesn't matter what kind of advertisers you use. This appears to be the collective opinion of Hollywood.

The other thing that irked me is that, rather than focus on real, actual, feasible solutions to this conundrum, the show went into a ridiculous fantasy-land scenario where the doctors give the son with Schizophrenia an unnecessary surgery, in order that he should be in recovery from surgery and that would allow his mother to get her surgery too, and they could stay in the hospital together. There was absolutely no mention of medications. There was no mention of (hello??) the PSYCHIATRIC WARD. Rather, the guy, after he fell down a flight of stairs, was put in wrist restraints in a regular hospital bed, in a regular hospital room. Right.

First of all, in the real world, this person wouldn't even be living with his mother. People this dysfunctional generally end up in group homes, or, even nursing homes. This guy can't hold a conversation. There is no mother that would be refusing to get a life-saving, necessary surgery just because there wasn't another human on earth who could be trusted to look after her son. In the real world, as well, there would probably be medications that would help a little bit. And in the real world, when the person pushes a doctor onto the floor (since we're all violent, of course), then runs around hiding in places all over the hospital, then falls and rolls down a flight of stairs - well, he would, ordinarily, be sent directly to the psych ward. And security guards or police officers would be escorting him there. But in the show, that doesn't happen. Instead, he never gets psych treatment at all.

The overall concept that a person with Schizophrenia is so dysfunctional he/she can't care for his/her self is offensive alone. When you add to that the idea that dumb little tricks such as making a list of things we need at the grocery store are the way you deal with psychosis is absolutely ludicrous. It occurs to me as I write this, that many people, perhaps most people, do not know what psychosis is actually like, at all. I guess that is the root of the problem. Because maybe, if they knew, they would also know that there is no silly little game that your mommy can do with you all your life, every day that will help you be able to "distract" yourself from voices. Voices aren't like urges to drink alcohol, have reckless sex, cut your wrists, or go shoplifting. Voices aren't thoughts or guilty feelings nagging at you. Those things are things from which you can distract yourself. A voice you hear, is a loud, clear, sometimes authoritative to the point of forcefully commanding you to do things - real voices. When you hear them you don't normally realize you're hearing voices, particularly if you're so dysfunctional you can't hold a conversation. When you're a little better, and on medication that works for you, you can hear them and know you're hearing them at the same time. I do. You can say, "I'm hearing this and it's not real", then. But not in a state where you're floridly psychotic and unmedicated. In that state, there is no way to "distract" yourself. But there are things people do to cope. I've never met anyone who used grocery lists to cope. I've met a lot of people with Schizophrenia who used music, though. I did. It can be louder than the voices, therefore drowning them out. Remember, the fact that they're not real does not mean that they're not loud to you, when you experience them.

Anyway, at the end of the day, it's just another episode of just another silly TV show. There will be more offensive ones in the future, as there have been many in the past.


  1. I gave up on medical realism on TV shows years ago when the professor used a coconut shell to remove Gilligan's appendix. A bonus question I used to ask my students was "what is wrong with the opening scene of Scrubs?" The answer is that J.D. put up the xray backwards. I feel your frustration! I guess we shouldn't expect medical accuracy in entertainment shows these days. It would cost extra to hire a good medical consultant.

  2. Those things are things from which you can distract yourself. A voice you hear, is a loud, clear, sometimes authoritative to the point of forcefully commanding you to do things - real voices. When you hear them you don't normally realize you're hearing voices, particularly if you're so dysfunctional you can't hold a conversation.

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