Feature: Theorizing Madness in Maddening Times

by Kellie Herson.

“Media research ages quickly,” my advisor regularly reminded me as I planned out my gender studies dissertation project in the early months of 2016. I understood the concept, but didn’t fully grasp what it might mean in practice. My work articulates mental illness as an intersectional social formation, using media and its interactions with medicine and policy as a site for unpacking how we understand mental health in relationship to discourses of gender, race, and sexuality. I assumed my analysis would remain timely; it didn’t seem to me that mental health stigma and health inequality and all the factors that amplify them were problems we would solve any time soon.

I did not consider the possibility that things might get worse.

The week Donald Trump was elected, my advisor’s advice sat at the front of my mind. I had just started drafting a chapter on how reality television makes a spectacle of mental illness that simultaneously depends upon and stigmatizes unstable behavior, particularly from women. My notebooks were full of detailed notes about myriad Real Housewives and Bachelor contestants who were deemed “crazy.” My analysis of the simultaneous fascination and repulsion with which we treat these women — and the occasional man — was rigorously outlined.

I spent months finding ways to explain a culture in which erratic reality stars were shamed, scapegoated, and treated as both inhuman and too-human. And then I had to sit down and write this explanation in a world where an erratic reality star could, given the right social location and set of contextual circumstances, be elected president.

This was not so much a matter of the Goldwater rule, the colloquial name for American Psychiatric Association’s policy that mental health professionals should not make public claims about the mental health of public figures whom they have not formally treated. While the debate around the ethics of diagnosing public figures is not only interesting but also revealing, I don’t diagnose people. Instead, I try to understand how particular subjects in particular contexts come to be perceived as in need of diagnosis. And the president is, for some, most certainly one of those people. We speculate endlessly: Does he have a mental health condition, a personality disorder, a cognitive impairment? In other words: Is there some rational explanation for his irrational behavior? Yet to some of his supporters, he is not an unstable figure further maddened by power but a lone voice of reason, restoring traditional disciplinary authority to a culture gone wild.

At times, these parallel discourses validate my work; they reveal how cultural discourse shapes our perceptions of who is and is not mad, how the label of “crazy” often reveals as much about the ideologies of those using it as the behaviors of those it is applied to. Our (white, male, straight, ostensibly wealthy) leader embodies all the behaviors and personality traits that we label with diagnoses and demonize as threats to public health and safety when we observe them in less powerful people — and yet we cannot build a social consensus on the topic of his behavioral stability. I doubt there’s ever been a better illustration of the ways that power and privilege make erratic behavior simultaneously hypervisible and illegible, depending on the perspectives of those watching. The way that privilege can shield some subjects’ mental health from scrutiny is a simultaneous inversion and reinforcement of the way that discourses of madness construct marginality and distress and trauma as forms of social deviance.

Yet the conversation around the president’s well-being is just one small part of a shifting context that makes it impossible to claim anything definitively about mental health in the U.S. today. It is difficult to articulate the affective impact of the cruel, unpredictable way that governance is done now, the staggering material impact that proposed changes to health policy might have on our access to care that meets our mental and physical health needs. These policies are often already inadequate — the rate of uninsured Americans remains high; mental health policy exists in a limbo wherein politicians of all orientations give lip service to improving mental health care, but fail to finance the structures that would make those improvements real and engage in rhetoric that stigmatizes people with mental illness. But the current administration has thoroughly and explicitly documented their commitment to dismantling these already weak structures in order to expand the power of the ruling class. Even when their efforts fail, the use of our physical and emotional well-being as a bargaining chip amplifies our existing distress.

It is not just that public health is in a precarious position; our mental health cannot be separated out from economic, legal, and social policies that produce injustices that traumatize us, especially those of us who are marginalized. Nor can our well-being be separated out from a news cycle that is at best relentlessly surreal and at worst simply relentless with non-stop accounts of violent actions of all kinds and threats of more violence to come. (In particular, this fall and winter’s onslaught of Trump-catalyzed sexual violence narratives has been personally distressing for me — which adds an extra layer of fun to writing about mental health, as I’m sure you can imagine.)

Everything feels, for lack of a better word, unstable. The structural and institutional norms through which (some) individual instability becomes constructed as deviance, as a tragedy, as a threat are changing dramatically. But these changes often seem to be for the worse, and most days, I’m still not sure how to articulate this emergent, complicated set of contexts. This is a weird time to research mental health through the lens of intersectional feminism, but it’s also a weird time to be a person who does any kind justice-oriented work at all. Some days feel so futile I not only fantasize about giving up this work but wonder why I didn’t give up sooner; other days remind me, in the most dramatic possible ways, why I keep choosing it. Things are bad and cruel — but the lack of subtlety in this badness and cruelty, the wildness with which the execution of it veers between erratic impulsiveness and cold mercenary strategy, has shaken loose a long-needed wild response in some of us. It feels like too much to hope for sometimes, but maybe feeling like everything has gone mad will let us embrace our own individual madness, and then embrace the fact that our madness and our well-being are not that individual at all.

Kellie Herson is a PhD candidate in gender studies at Arizona State University. Her research articulates mental health as both a material, embodied experience and an intersectional social formation in contemporary U.S. culture.  


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