Tonight on PBS: The Definition of Insanity — Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System

Posted on April 14, 2020 at 7:00 am

Tonight on PBS: A powerful documentary about the failures of the criminal justice system when it comes to mental illness, will millions of dollars wasted on the very definition of cruel and inhuman punishment. It is also the story of a pioneering judge who establishes a very successful pilot program, reducing arrests, recidivism, and costs.

A personal note: When I was a young lawyer I worked on a case that would have benefitted from exactly this kind of option. A mentally ill homeless man was cold and so he broke into an office building. Because it happened to be a federal office building and he opened a file drawer it led to a number of charges that he was not really responsible for, or responsible enough to understand. I wish we had had an option like the one this judge has created.

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Posted on February 7, 2018 at 7:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler

Copyright 2017 Dark Star Pictures
How often we look back on our lives and think, “If I had just made one other decision, if I only had someone to help me, if just one thing had come out differently, everything would have gone better for me.” In “Entanglement,” a young man struggling with mental illness finds out that he almost had a sister. His parents were about to adopt a baby girl when his mother became pregnant with him and the adoption was canceled. She was adopted by another family. He decides to track down the woman who could have been his sister because he thinks that if he had just grown up with someone who could understand and look out for him, his whole life could have been better. It could have made sense to him. He might even have found a way to be happy.

Thomas Middleditch plays Ben, who is interrupted by a package delivery as he is trying to commit suicide. After he is released from the mental hospital, he is despondent and unmoored. When he hears the story of his not-sister, he decides that he should try to find her. Maybe she can still be the companion and confidante of unique understanding whose unquestioning appreciation would give him more confidence. He does not consider whether he is interested in or capable of providing that same unquestioning appreciation and support, but that’s pretty much the problem. As is often the case, mental illness makes it difficult for him to relate to others, even the compassionate neighbor Tabby (Diana Bang) who comes over to his apartment to clean up and check in on him.

Ben finds Hanna (Jess Weixler), who seems to be the usual movie manic pixie dream girl, but (1) Weixler, an exceptionally appealing and talented actress, makes her more than that, and (2) that is what writer Jason Filiatrault and director Jason James want us to think so they can surprise us with a twist of that tired concept at the end.

Middleditch is a talented actor too often relegated to shy nerd roles like the one he plays in “Silicon Valley.” As he showed in “The Bronze,” he is thoughtful and honest and the movie has a more nuanced understanding of mental illness than most, and an optimism and empathy that nicely balances its bittersweetness.

Parents should know that this movie has a frank but optimistic portrayal of mental illness, including a suicide attempt and medication. There are sexual references and situations and characters use strong language.

Family discussion: How did Hanna help Ben? What does entanglement mean to you?

If you like this, try: “Harold and Maude”

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Mental Illness in Media Can Be Therapeutic: Angelica Jade Bastien

Posted on December 16, 2017 at 9:30 pm

I’ve written before about my admiration for writer Angelica Jade Bastien, who writes beautifully and with great passion about film and television, especially about the portrayal of black and female characters. She also writes forthrightly about her own struggles with mental illness. In two recent essays she pays tribute to portrayals of mental illness on the large and small screen that are more than authentic; they are therapeutic.

One is a classic, Bette Davis’ Now Voyager, one of my favorites as well. It was an early depiction of the struggle of Charlotte Vale, a young woman from an upper-class Boston family, who has so much anxiety over feelings of being unloved and unworthy that she has a breakdown. With the help of a sympathetic psychiatrist played with enormous patience and compassion by Claude Rains, she has one of the cinema’s great transformations, inside and out. Bastien writes:

Now, Voyager remains a timeless portrait of a woman who pulls herself back from the edge of madness to create a life she’s proud to live, with the help of both psychiatry and her own willpower. The film is buttressed by sleek, highly efficient Hollywood production and the moving performances of the cast, notably Davis and Claude Rains as Dr. Jaquith, who helps usher Charlotte into this next phase of her life. Most poignantly, Now, Voyager is a curious outlier in the pantheon of American cinema that concerns itself with women living with mental illness. Few films offer the kind of blistering hope and empathy that has made Now, Voyager endure.

Unlike the “emotional distance” in other movies about mentally ill women, whether they are treated as villains (Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” Fairuza Balk in “The Craft”) or quirky misfits, Bastien says that “Now Voyager” “centers on Charlotte’s interior life, including her mental illness, above all else, and how Davis capably brings this to life.”

She also wrote about a view of mental illness made 75 years later, Rachel Bloom’s television series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

It has an elasticity few other shows come close to, let alone pull off with such regularity, in the way it melds cutting emotional truths with audacious musical numbers that reference everything from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to 1980s hair-metal bands. But I was always left cold by it. It took until season three, which takes a gimlet-eyed approach to Rebecca’s mental-health concerns, for me to realize that my chilliness toward the series wasn’t a mark of any inauthenticity I witnessed in its narrative. In fact, it isn’t that I didn’t see much of my own journey with mental illness on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; I saw too much of myself in the overachieving, myopic Rebecca Bunch.

One of the greatest pleasures of the series is watching Rachel Bloom inhabit this character. She is at her best when she interrogates Rebecca’s mania, capturing the seductive quality of a manic episode. Its garish, bright intensity fools you into believing this is your best self as you dive headfirst into a series of self-destructive and often exhilarating behaviors. I can see myself in Rebecca’s relationship with mania, the vivacity of her daydreams, and her fraught relationship with her mother….In Rebecca’s shifting emotions, I saw my own history: the giddy elation of a new diagnosis she believes can solve everything, the buoyant mania that often follows a suicide attempt, the careful navigation that comes when you’ve tried to set fire to your own life and still have to move forward.

As is increasingly recognized, representation matters. Bloom has been frank in acknowledging her own mental health issues and her determination to present, even in a heightened, comic setting, an authentic depiction of a character for whom mental health is just one of her character attributes. That, in and of itself, can be therapeutic in educating the members of the audience who do not understand these issues and validating the experience of those who understand them only too well.

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Critics Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Mental Illness on Television

Posted on September 18, 2016 at 4:13 pm

Angelica Jade Bastién is one of my favorite critics, and her essays on film are always insightful and thought-provoking. For Vulture, she wrote about the increasingly sensitive and authentic portrayal of mental illness on television. And she calls out the still-too-frequent portrayal of mentally ill characters as serial killers, or quirky-but-wise, or even super-smart but flawed figures.

If you live with mental illness, a show like You’re the Worst is downright revelatory. During its first season, the FXX comedy introduced Edgar, a military veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. In its second season, the show revealed that its lead female character, Gretchen, has clinical depression. And in its third season, which premiered last week, Gretchen actively seeks treatment and begins seeing a therapist.

In a television landscape that often misunderstands and misrepresents mental illness, You’re the Worst isn’t alone. Thanks to shows like BoJack Horseman, Lady Dynamite, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it’s now easier than ever to find moving portraits of mental illness on television — but on the whole, most shows still struggle with flawed, careless, and inaccurate depictions….By failing to offer a diagnosis, a show’s writers can cherry-pick a variety of symptoms, which ultimately creates a dishonest portrayal that hinges on plot needs. This often leads to confused characterization, or worse, an exploitative view of mental illness.

It does not have to be a serious drama to be true to the reality of mental illness. Bastién’s good examples include “You’re the Worst” and “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend.”

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Wil Wheaton Talks About His Mental Illness in a Video for UROK

Posted on July 8, 2015 at 12:23 pm

I love the way Wil Wheaton sort of plays himself on “The Big Bang Theory.” The characters interact with him as Wil Wheaton, Wesley Crusher from “Star Trek: TNG” and star of “Stand By Me” (and “Serial Apeist 2”). But the “Wil Wheaton” character, especially in the first few appearances, was arrogant and mean, a fitting “nemesis” for Sheldon Cooper, played by Jim Parsons.

Real-life Wil Wheaton is a proud fanboy and hero of nerd culture. He was one of the first celebrities on Twitter (@wilw), with more than 2.8 million followers.

And real-life Wil Wheaton has some mental illness issues. In a video for UROK, a non-profit group that helps teens understand mental illness, he talks about his anxiety and depression.

“You are not the only person in the world who has anxiety. You are not the only person in the world who has depression. You’re not the only person in the world who has thoughts of self-harm. There are people who want to help you. There are people who have spent their entire lives helping people like you and me and all of the people that you’re seeing in this video. And you’re not alone. You are okay.”

It is so easy for teenagers and even adults to think we are alone in our moments of sadness and fear. Many thanks to Wil Wheaton for his generosity and courage in sharing his story.

Project UROK invites everyone to share a video.

Project UROK is a nonprofit organization founded in 2014 by Jenny Jaffe. Their mission is “to create funny, meaningful videos for teenagers struggling with mental health issues, made by people who have been there before, to provide not only practical assistance, but also a sense of belonging, a sense of comfort, and a sense of hope.

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