Mental Illness Stereotypes, Amy Winehouse, & Anders Behring Breivik

Sun, Jul 24, 2011

Pure Water

Mad Pride Week finished more than a week ago.  I had intended to write a piece on it but couldn’t find a hook.  Until yesterday, that is, when two very different stories trended all over the social media universe.  One story from the UK: soul singer, Amy Winehouse, had died at the age of 27.  The other from Norway:  a man named Anders Behring Breivik had detonated a bomb in Oslo, killing 7, then went to an island where he killed more than 80 teenagers.  I note a common theme in media (and reader) responses to these events.  Both events are being analysed with the usual toolbox of mental health clichés.  The people at the centre of these stories have been reduced to mental health caricatures.  The commentators reveal widely-held prejudices that were just as current in the 18th century as they are today.  And both stories illustrate why Mad Pride is necessary.

What is Mad Pride?

Mad Pride borrows from Gay Pride.  It takes queer theory and applies it to mental health.  So, for example, rather than trying to “cure” mental illness (which may be ludicrous in any event, at least in the case of chronic major mental health issues), it seeks to assert mental illness as an identity.  One way to do this is to take back those words that have typically been used to stigmatize and denigrate people who wrestle daily with major mental health issues.  Just as Gay Pride seizes ownership of words like faggot, fairy, and queer, Mad Pride seizes ownership of words like nuts, crazy, and cuckoo.  In addition, Pride movements try to dispel myths – the pedophilia myth in the case of homosexuality, the violence myth in the case of major mental illness.  I have written previously about the application of queer theory to mental health.  You can learn more about Mad Pride here and here.

Amy Winehouse

Although news reports have not yet disclosed a cause of death, for my purposes, it doesn’t really matter.  Expressions of regret for a talent destroyed by addiction are legitimate.  What concerns me here is the way people respond given the fact that her death is presumed to be drug and alcohol related.  People denigrate her talent.  People call her a loser.  People say it was her own damn fault; she was a weak person.  Others, like James Rhodes writing for The Telegraph, suggest it was the price she paid for her talent, as if she had entered into a Faustian pact.  Almost from the day she released her first album in 2003, the public has shown a lurid fascination with her pharmacological struggles, her increasingly bizarre stage behaviour, her on-again off-again relationship with rehab.  She wasn’t a musician with fans; she was a cottage industry for voyeurs.  People went to her concerts for the same reason they go to NASCAR races – they secretly hoped to see a wreck.

What is missing from the responses to the woman’s addictions is empathy.  If we identified with Amy Winehouse, that would require us to drop the moralizing tone that prompts us to say it was her own damn fault.  If we identified with Amy Winehouse, we might even have to drop the “disease” language and acknowledge that the challenges of addiction place it more in the category of a syndrome than a disease.  It has multiple contributors.  It is complex.  One-word epithets like “loser” and “tragic” are expressions of denial.  They deny complexity, and in particular, the complicated social arrangements that made us all complicit in Amy Winehouse’s death.  We bought her albums.  We devoured the stories of her latest onstage meltdown.  We paid to watch.  In other words, we helped to finance the machinery that converted her personal misery into a marketable commodity.

Anders Behring Breivik

When the story broke of a bombing in Oslo, the media assumed it was a terrorist attack, probably perpetrated by Muslim extremists (do the media know any other kind?), probably members of al Qaeda.  In an op-ed for Aljazeera, Ibrahim Hewitt notes how much this reveals about Western prejudices.  When the media later learned that the perpetrator was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian, he was no longer a terrorist, but a “deranged lone gunman.”  The media neatly side-stepped the fact that Breivik was strongly influenced by fundamentalist Christian extremists and a politics of the far right.  The “deranged lone gunman” label allows right-wing ideologues to brush aside the embarrassing fact that Breivik’s target – a left-wing youth camp – suggests an affiliation with a politicized Christian right.

Hewitt’s observation is sound, but it deserves another turn of the screw.  Since the Western media could no longer scapegoat Islam, they resorted to the mentally ill.  Breivik is deranged, insane, crazy, nuts.  He must be.  That’s the only inference that can be drawn from the commission of such heinous violence.  We see a subtle example of this (il)logic in a BBC article.  After reporting that Breivik remained “calm and balanced throughout a 10-hour night of interrogation”, the article quotes his lawyer:  “I think he’s realized what he’s done, and he views himself as sane.”  Implicit in the statement is that no one else agrees with his self-assessment.  Breivik is either a Muslim extremist (which the facts don’t support) or he’s insane.  The third option is unthinkable:  Breivik is a calculating and rational man who has demonstrated what it means to draw right-wing Christian views to their logical conclusion.  Since this is unthinkable, the media has chosen instead to perpetuate the myth of a correlation between mental illness and violence.  As a result, those of us who already suffer, suffer doubly for media prejudices.

Evasion of Responsibility

What these two stories hold in common is the application in the media of prejudices, stereotypes, clichés, myths, and half-truths about mental health issues in order to facilitate a collective evasion of responsibility.

In the case of Amy Winehouse, we get to pretend that she suffered from a moral weakness and that the collective demands we imposed on her had nothing to do with her death.

In the case of Breivik, we get to pretend that he was a “deranged lone gunman” and that a global swing to the hard right, with its rising militancy and rejection of difference, had nothing to do with his violence.

As a proud madman, I wrest the word “deranged” from the media.  I am deranged.  I am peace-loving, too.  And, except when I snore, I’m a delight to be with.  Through its articles, the media provides examples of how sane people think.  I would rather be deranged.


Since I drafted this post, the quotes I provided in reference to Breivik’s calm demeanor and self-perception as sane have been deleted from the BBC article.  See News Sniffer to track the changes.  What are we to infer from the deletion of references to Breivik’s sanity?

fundamentalism, media, mental health, news, queer theory, terrorism

8 Responses to “Mental Illness Stereotypes, Amy Winehouse, & Anders Behring Breivik”

  1. Trina Says:

    As someone who has struggled with depression for more years than not, I just want to say how much I appreciate your blog post. The media’s use of mental illness as a convenient scapegoat for these two terrible tragedies is sad but not unexpected given the right wing flavor of most media these days. Thank you for continuing to uphold the ideals of free thinking compassionate writing.

  2. David Says:

    Thanks, Trina. Sometimes, when I’m tempted to feel angry or indignant, I write instead. I find it makes a world of difference.

  3. chris Says:

    great analysis and commentary – a few comments though – while the link between mental illness and violence may be a myth, the link between the treatment of mental illness and violence is well documented. the psychiatry industry knows this very well, which is why they have arranged to protect themselves so well, such as arranging for mental health records to be sealed after an outbreak of violence, for the fear that people will discover the effects that the 80 billion dollar a year drug industry has on human lives. Virginia tech, columbine, the giffords shooting in Arizona all involved a mental health patient that was offered help and given years of mind altering neuroleptics, that cause what some call a chemical lobotomy. CCHR has incredible resources on the effects on artists, children, the elderly and also acts as a watchdog exposing some unbelievable
    things about the industry.

  4. chris Says:

    Also I find it odd that you expose the scapegoat myth of blaming Islam for violence, then proceed to perpetuate a corollary logical fallacy in linking Christianity to the Breivik situation. Also the Knights Templar is not a group that needs rise from the ashes, they are very much alive and active (I know quite a few in Los Angeles) and to join them means immediate self excommunication from Christian groups such as Catholicism, catholic doctrine has well established the beliefs of the knights Templar as antithetical to Christianity. since these comments require moderation, I don’t expect to see them published but overall, I think your writing is very engaging and interesting

  5. David Says:

    Hi Chris, thanks for your comments. I approve all comments except spam and personal attacks, so your posts here are welcome. I’m not sure why you call the link between Christianity and the Breivik situation a logical fallacy. If you mean that Breivik’s violence is inconsistent with a gospel of love, then I take your point. I was using Christianity more to indicate the way in which people self-identify. Based on his manifesto, Breivik appears to self-identify as a Christian, and I’m willing to take him at his word. The alternative would embroil me in an argument over who is and who isn’t a “true Christian” and who does and who doesn’t get to arbitrate the decision. This is a dangerous game to play because it ultimately depends upon power rather than upon belief.

  6. Sean Says:

    Hi David, I dont know if you still check this link as it was a while ago, but nevertheless I wanted to ask you for some adivse. Im a journalism student and I am writing a dissertation on mental health coverage in the news media, with a focus on Amy Winehouse. I wanted to ask whether you knew of any good literary sources for this subject, as I am struggling to find them. If you can help me I would most appreciate it, if not then nay worry!


  7. Sean Says:

    Oh and great article by the way

  8. David Says:

    Hi Sean, I’m not sure what you mean by “literary sources”. Assuming you mean literary as in literature (rather than literary as in scholarly literature of addiction and mental health) … there’s always Irving Welsh. In the same vein (so to speak) is Richard Milward (Ten Storey Love Song). Specific to the music industry in the UK is John Niven’s Kill Your Friends. All three writers are from the UK and write about drug culture there. Good luck with your thesis.

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