Thursday, June 11, 2009

Paranoid killer

A quiet night. Wife is gone taking care of her brother's pets, I'm home channel surfing, hoping that no matter the evidence to the contrary, there is something worth watching on television. I am struck by the synopsis of an episode of Nash Bridges on Universal HD, which describes a "paranoid man" who kills people talking on cell phones. That sounds intriguing!

I'm also aware of the tone of this now defunct show, even though I don't think I've ever watched an episode. It's a Don Johnson show, after all. It doesn't challenge anyone's intellect. In this episode the "paranoid" is spotted clearly. He's the guy in the watch cap, holding his hands over his ears as people talk on their phones. He takes out his gun, pow, he kills a man for talking.

We see him later in his basement apartment. He has completely covered it with aluminum foil, floor, walls, ceiling; the cell phone he took off his victim is wrapped in foil. He puts the phone in a foil-covered box and throws it in the water by the bay.

The problem with a program like this is how mentally ill people are treated by the writers. They're either played for laughs or held in disgust. In shows like this all mentally ill people are dangerous, capable of killing. They perpetuate a stereotype that organizations like NAMI (National Association for the Mentally Ill) have spent years trying to change. As we find out, the killer has a brain tumor. A surgeon removed most of it, but it's still growing, and the paranoid man won't take his medications.

Paranoia is something I've lived around it all my life. I can be as paranoid as anyone when the circumstances warrant, but none of the paranoids I've lived with, worked with or known have ever taken a gun and killed anyone. It has happened with others, but it's fairly rare, and not with anyone I know. The stereotype is, of course, that anyone with mental illness is dangerous, capable of killing. Nash Bridges, doing his best Jack Lord Hawaii 5-0 imitation, wants someone to check out all released mental patients from the past six months. Hey, good luck on that, Nash. But, this is a TV show where commands like that can be acted upon immediately. One of his assistants tells him, "Nothing showing up on the crazy radar."

Nash and his buddy go to the paranoid tinfoil tumor-man's doctor and in violation of doctor-patient privilege he spills the beans on everything wrong with the guy, which helps them run him down. Of course at the end Nash saves the day by disarming the paranoid man.

During the Vietnam War there was a stereotype of a returning soldier who has snapped, and has come home a walking time bomb, a homicidal psycho. The fictitious image was so potent some people believed all soldiers returning from the war were like that. I'm sure it didn't help any of these men who did have mental problems, like post traumatic stress disorder, to know that people were thinking they were apt to go out on a killing spree.

Some time ago I found this public service ad in a comic book, vintage 1951. (Click on it to make it bigger.)

It seems so far advanced for its time, when mental health was still in something of a voodoo stage, an era psychiatrists thought homosexuality, for instance, was mental illness. In those days having a person in your family who was mentally ill was a stigma; the sick were hidden away. It was possible for family members to have grandma or mom committed to a mental institution just on their say-so. The image of the illness came mostly from pop culture, movies of drooling "crazy people" in padded cells.

I'm surprised by this decades-old PSA, and its message of accepting of mental illness as just that, an illness. Apparently its call for empathy and understanding probably didn't do much good, because nearly 60 years after it was originally published the same old ugly stereotypes still accompany mental illness.

No comments: