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Mental Illness, The Final Frontier

Posted Oct 22 2008 4:32pm

You may remember A Time to Kill, a 1996 movie from a John Grisham novel about a lawyer who took on a racist town. He defended a black man accused of murdering two white men after they raped his young daughter.

But the high drama came at the end -- easily the peak of Matthew McConaughey's acting career -- when he faced the white jurors and asked them to dream a dream.

Imagine a girl, he told them, who was stripped of everything short of her life. This girl could never have children of her own. She was urinated on, then tossed into a creek and "left to die," he said.

"Can you see her?" he asked the hushed jury. "Can you see her?"

"Now imagine she's white...."

Some jurors gasped; others picked their heads up, their eyes bulging. A few looked so appalled, they wept.

One could assume they looked in the mirror, and saw something in themselves that they hated: Racism, separatism, classism. They displayed a sense of generosity that, we hope, they gained while growing up and trying to cope with life in the post-civil-rights era of South. They determined that the black man, Carl Lee Hailey, was innocent.

Sure, it was only a movie. But it was symbolic of a South that's changing. A majority of conservatives, liberals and moderates now appear to share the belief that racism is wrong, even if they continue to display behavior that has a racist subtext. Those who publicly declare themselves racists - proud of it, in fact - are now the fringe. They're the radicals, the minority and, ultimately, the ones whom mainstream society is now tossing into the creek.

Carl Lee Hailey's case isn't unique; octogenarian men who conspired in some of the heinous racist crimes of the 1950s and 1960s are now being brought to justice. Advocacy groups are using DNA testing to prove that men -- particularly black men -- were wrongly convicted of murder and other crimes.

Now African-Americans and Latino-Americans are elected to high offices in the once off-limits states of Mississippi and Georgia. Though their ideology may promote classism and separatism, even conservative pundits are quick to cry "racism" if even one of their own crosses the line.

And it's not just racism, but prejudice of any kind that's changing. Comedians who mocked homosexuality, ethnic groups and races -- particularly by mangling accents and using profane language such as the n-word -- have toned down their acts. Remember the movie "48 Hours," and how the Nick Nolte character used the n-word as often as he said "what?" Years ago, the T.V. version didn't edit the n-word. Now, on TNT, you won't hear it at all -- not even once.

America still has a long way to go, but it's grown to accept diversity. America's growth, however, has never been all-inclusive. Perhaps the final frontier of conquering prejudice -- and finding some happy medium between mainstream acceptance and political correctness -- is the legitimization of mental illness.

If the path to racial equality can be measured in, say, thousands of miles, then the distance toward achieving some mainstream mutual understanding and feeling of compassion for people with mental illness must be measured in light years.

Even in this age of political correctness, terms that the mental health community considers offensive (much like the black community considers the n-word to be offensive) are still being tossed around, and they're as much a part of the fabric of society as brushing your teeth and going to bed. Some in the media never seem to even pause before blasting the word "Psycho" or "Wacko Jacko" in a headline.

Hollywood has shown progress, with movies such as Good Will Hunting and, more recently, Matchstick Men garnering praise from mental health advocates and professionals for portraying mental illness in a sensitive and intelligent way.

But for every Good Will Hunting is a Me, Myself and Irene in which Jim Carrey portrays schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder (hard to tell what he's trying to portray, actually) in a manner that's as silly and stupid as a Gilligan's Island reunion T.V. movie.

The rise of punditry, particularly on the cable news channels, has only made things worse. Media Matters is quick to jump on Don Imus for saying "nappy-headed hos" to describe the Rutgers University basketball team. But how many times has Media Matters done a You Tube search, inserted the terms "loon" and witnessed the seemingly endless list of items from T.V. news shows, each filled with some form of questionable speech?

Well, I've already done the search, so don't bother. Eighty-one items in all. Not all of them were videos of talk-show hosts using the word, but fans were quick to point out that the featured guests in each video were of the "far-left loon" variety (would You Tube change the description if they wrote the n-word instead? Just asking) who deserved the abuse they were getting.

I was inspired initially when I watched "The O'Reilly Factor" a year ago and saw Bill berate Sunsara Taylor from the anti-war group "World Can't Wait" because of her group's loud, rude protests regarding Iraq.

TAYLOR: Because of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people's lives have been destroyed, people have been killed, torture has been committed and legalized

O'REILLY: OK, but look...

TAYLOR: These things are not being discussed the way they should.

O'REILLY: Miss Taylor, that's your opinion, OK, and you're entitled under the Constitution to your opinion.

TAYLOR: Those are the facts.

O'REILLY: No, they're not facts. You are a loon. You are a lunatic. And if you weren't a lunatic, 90 percent of America would agree with you.

It's no wonder Congress or various state legislatures have failed to approve mental health parity health care coverage when society -- as well as those who act as spokespeople for it -- refuses to take schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, bulimia and other illnesses seriously. A poor woman suffering from postpartum depression has a better chance of getting hospital attention -- or, at the very least, health coverage -- if she breaks her arm.

Now, just for a second, imagine if she were white...

This story originally appeared on The Huffington Post on May 29, 2008.
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