In Tuesday’s extended episode (“Born This Way”), “Glee” tackled self-image, including appearance, sexual orientation, and mental illness. While this made for an interesting mish-mash of self-awareness, I found myself relating most to Emma Pillsbury, McKinley High’s neurotic guidance counselor. Since the beginning of the show, Emma’s been a bit (OK, a lot) of a “neat freak.” Early on, I got the joke, “The guidance counselor needs guidance.” Hilarious. I find it especially funny given that I’m a gal with a Master’s degree in counseling who suffers from mental illness.
In episode after episode, Emma frantically sterilizes her environment, and the audience laughs. Ha, that smartly dressed redhead! Each week I pretended to laugh along thinking that “Glee” just makes fun of everyone (especially Christians and virgins.) But last week, the show took a major turn—it started to address the issues associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Though an imperfect representation of mental illness, at least “Glee” is bringing the issue into the public eye, and not in the “funny” and endearing way that shows like “Monk” and “House” and movies like As Good As It Gets and Matchstick Men have addressed mental illness. “Glee” shows that Emma suffers from mental illness, that she suffers.
Mental illness is a strange beast—either it is portrayed as “not a big deal” (“Everyone gets a little down sometimes”) or as a monstrous disease that overtakes the lives of its sufferers (think sociopathic killers on crime dramas or the aforementioned dramatizations of characters with OCD.) Then there are celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Demi Lovato, who are willing to admit they struggle with mental illness, but they’re OK now. And, of course, Charlie Sheen who clearly has a mental problem, which he won’t admit. But where are the people like “Glee’s” Emma who live in spite of mental illness? Few and far between.
No one wants the stigma of mental illness. I certainly don’t want it to plague me my whole life. I am keenly aware about how much I say, wonder if I revealed too much, and ponder if I should just shut up about my severe depression and anxiety. I don’t enjoy the sideways glances I get from acquaintances that read my blog or hear a rumor about me. They wonder if I’m in my right mind, if I’m OK, but no one dares to ask what is really going on or how they can help me. I know the stigma; I live it every day. And like Emma, it keeps me sick. Someone rightly told me that secrets keep you sick. What if the secrets are about how you are sick…mentally?
Towards the end of “Glee,” Emma finally seeks professional help and is given a prescription for a SSRI, which she takes in her office (because who doesn’t want to down her first psychiatric medication at work?) With that swallow, Emma spoke for a lot of mentally ill people who have been kept silent. Yes, we suffer. Yes, we go to weekly therapy. Yes, we know we are mentally ill. But like Emma, we are not our illness. Emma does not equal OCD anymore than Amy equals depression, anxiety and the rest of the stuff my therapist writes on my diagnostic sheet. Emma is a person with OCD, not an illness, just like Amy (that’s me) is a woman who lives with depression.
And I bet you thought “Glee” was just a show about a bunch of underdog kids who sing and dance. In reality, “Glee” is becoming more of a phenomenon that is making outsiders (homosexuals, fat girls, the mentally ill, and more) insiders, which encourages all of us to be a little more honest about who we are.
For an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the Glee episode “Born This Way,” head on over to the Glee homepage (link).