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Destler Dodge

On Inauguration Day, the American public witnessed another spectacle besides Trump’s inauguration ceremony; M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller Split hit U.S. theaters on Jan. 21. In just over a month, the film has already earned back its cost of production many times over, as well as an 81 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. The film discusses the effect of traumatic experiences on people’s lives and delineates the story of a man with 23 distinct personalities who kidnaps three girls and holds them hostage. However, a significant number of viewers were upset by the film’s portrayal of those suffering from mental illnesses and disorders, particularly of those who suffer from dissociative identity disorder (DID). 

But what is most disturbing about the film was the audience’s laughter as they watched actor James McAvoy’s stunning performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb, the man with DID. The personalities living in his head range from Hedwig, a nine year old who likes to dance while listening to Kanye in his room, to Dennis, a severely type A personality who resists his desire to assault teenage girls. The violent shifts in Kevin’s mind are honestly heartbreaking to watch. There is nothing humorous about it. 

The clamor of all these personalities inside Kevin is unfamiliar territory to most audience members. DID is one of the rarest mental disorders and research efforts on it have not been very conclusive. Many serious psychotic disorders are extremely rare;  the National Alliance of Mental Illness’ (NAMI) statistics show that only two percent of people experience dissociative disorders. Only one out of every 25 American adults — or 4.2 percent — experience a serious mental illness that severely inhibits their life activities. Only 1.1 percent of American adults live with schizophrenia and only 2.6 percent live with bipolar disorder. 

You may hear the terms like "depression," "anxiety," "eating disorder" or "OCD" fly through the air like rice at a wedding, but it wasn’t very long ago that these words were taboo.

“People are hearing [these words] more. They know they exist now. But they aren’t taking the time to understand them," said Cody Winston, fourth year Applied Arts and Sciences major and president of RIT’s chapter of Active Minds. Active Minds is an organization that seeks to provide understanding and resources for mental health.

"So now that’s when the issue of stigma starts coming up and that’s where we step in. It ends up being a very long term thing. We’ve now hit the point where people know about these issues; now we have to get them to understand the issues and be willing to work with the issues,” said Winston.

Our recent and rapid expansion of mental illness lingo is a double-edged sword. Modern mental health awareness is growing with the millennial generation. But while it's easy to use buzzwords, it’s harder to know what they mean. Listen and you will hear the words "depression," "anxiety," "eating disorder" or "OCD" fly through the air like rice at a wedding. It wasn’t very long ago that these words were taboo, nothing more than an occasional knowing smile or a snicker. Depression, a word quickly slipping into our everyday lexicon, is the number two cause of disability in the world, yet only 6.9 percent of American adults experiences a significant depressive episode within any given year.

Throughout the year, Active Minds runs various awareness events on campus, including eating disorder and self harm awareness this month in March. At the end of each semester they put together a "Stress Less" week to help students all get through finals. 

“Our most well known event to date is called the White Balloon. That was like right when we started. It was like an awareness campaign where we gave away 500 balloons and each balloon was a different color based on the proportion of college students who have a different mental illness or mental disorder,” says Winston.

“So we let them all out and then at midnight we released all the statistics. We had just been giving out balloons on the quarter mile, everyone was really excited and we just told them, ‘Follow this on Twitter’ and then they saw the statistics when they actually went and looked it up and were like, ‘Oh wow.’ We ended up reaching like 20,000 people online. We won awards for the event.”

“I think at least with the mental health community it’s a lot of language,” says Winston. Awareness campaigns in the past have been almost exclusively focused on the public’s use of language. One of the most successful of these campaigns to date was the R-Word Movement. Using public service announcements that employed popular TV personalities and catchy slogans, the R Word Movement accomplished its goal with surprising thoroughness. When our generation was young, the R-word was an insult you might hear on the playground; now, merely hearing it makes your stomach drop.

Other mental illnesses, however, are becoming the subjects of the same erroneous casual usage that used to be attributed to the R-word. “That’s so bipolar,” “I’m sooo OCD” or “You schizo?,” — as well as a plethora of medically-inaccurate jokes about anorexia — are becoming common expressions that spring from the lips of our friends.

“With the R-word, a lot of time it was associated with people with developmental disabilities so you could see it in a person. This isn’t something that’s so easy to see,” said Winston.

“You can’t say, ‘That’s a person with depression’ — there’s no way to identify that. You can’t as easily be like, ‘Oh someone that I know probably identifies with that,’ unless you're close enough with them that they’ve told you that. So building connections with the words can be more difficult,” said Winston. People are far less likely to actually know people suffering from more serious psychological disorders, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. In addition, stigma against these illnesses often drives those suffering from them to keep silent. Because of this, developing a real understanding of these issues in society at large becomes more difficult.

“Some of those things [depression and anxiety] are so hard to tell, especially as someone who’s not educated as a therapist, let alone not knowing the full definition,” said second year Medical Illustration major and Active Minds Public Relations Officer Courtney Armitage. “You need to just push education out there to as many people as possible.”

How can we find a balance between understanding and awareness? How can we create a society that helps to keep those suffering from any number of mental illnesses safe? Changing our language, promoting awareness, providing resources and education are all excellent ways when done with discretion. Another way — that takes far more bravery — is sharing your own experience.

Rose Liu is a graduate student in the photography school here at RIT. While still an undergrad, she decided to push herself to new limits and photograph something that absolutely terrified and moved her: eating disorders. 

In her artist’s statement for her project “Thin”, Liu writes, “Those suffering from this complicated, frightening, often deadly, disease need our attention, compassion and understanding ... our self-image is not always reality, but it is also hard to fathom by those who have not struggled with eating disorders."

Liu herself suffered from an eating disorder for six years and is now living a healthy, recovered life. Wanting the photos to be visceral and truthful, Liu knew she couldn’t use her own body for the series. She approached other women she saw who also suffering from eating disorders and asked if they would participate in her project.

"I use photography to promote awareness about the destructive power of eating disorders, capture the intense struggle of women suffering from them and, ultimately, let go of my anorexic past," continued Liu. "These images remind me of where I have been and what I never want to experience again.”

Sigmund Freud defined mental health as “the capacity to work and to love” — essentially, to live. We are all trying to live our own definition of a happy and successful life and our mental health significantly impacts our ability to reach that goal. Each of us is on our own journey, struggling with our own. Buzzwords will never be a substitute for true empathy. As such, we must always be prepared to acknowledge our own shortcomings in understanding the many and varied stories of mental illness.