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Is it just me, or does it seem like mental illness is becoming all the rage?

I mean, it seems like it’s just about everywhere in conversation and pop culture. At first I thought there was something twisted about our newfound obsession with psychological issues, but when you think about it, this growing “popularity” of mental illness actually reflects a progressive, positive shift in society’s attitude.

A generation ago, mental illness was far more of an unspoken thing. But how often do you hear your friends say, “I am so OCD about that,” or “… it’s because I’m so ADD.”

And it’s not just that we’re talking about it more — mental illness is cropping up in the entertainment world. Everyone’s eyes are on which celebrity’s attempted suicide and who’s going back to rehab for the gazillionth time (*cough* Lindsay *cough*).

If you’ve had a pulse during the past few years, you’ve noticed the success of the hugely popular A&E; TV documentaries about mental illnesses. Shows like Obsessed and Hoarders feature individuals who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, while shows like Intervention focus on the world of drug and alcohol addiction.

Initially, I was super critical of these shows. It seemed to me they were exploiting people in their most vulnerable state for America’s entertainment. But after talking to some pretty persuasive voices in the field of media studies, I ate my words. I realized that these shows are actually helping address a serious problem in our society: the “taboo” of mental illness.

Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Communication Institute of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, told me, “I’m impressed! [These shows] seem to feel that the world should understand these disorders better.”

Like Romer, I applaud these shows for destigmatizing mental illness in the public eye. But at the same time, I think they’re treading on some dangerous territory. I’m no Whartonite, but I’m pretty sure that the bottom line in the entertainment industry — like any industry — is making a buck.

Notice how you see shows about drug interventions, OCD and hoarding but not about clinical depression or general anxiety conditions. “Television thrives on visual and drama,” explained Katherine Sender, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication who studies reality TV shows. “For reality television to work you need to take compelling people, with compelling issues and work with them in a way that can turn it into dramatic art.”

Hoarding is very visual, drug interventions are highly dramatic and OCD is a bit of both. But I guess that depression isn’t “sexy” enough for TV.

Even though these shows undoubtedly play up the dramatic and extra-unusual aspects of mental illness, it seems like their audience (or at least you guys) aren’t blindly falling for it. Although the characters are often presented as extraordinarily abnormal, the students that I chatted with explained that they empathized with them and weren’t assuming they were “psycho” or “insane.”

And according to Sender, her research has found that “audiences are much kinder and more empathetic with people on the screen than one might think they’d be.”

I started this article ready to rip A&E; a new one, but now I’ve got to admit that I’m looking at these shows a lot more favorably (and I don’t feel nearly as guilty about my personal love for them).

Making mental illness more public makes it more acceptable. And this, according to Romer, makes it easier for ashamed sufferers to seek treatment.

So yeah, I’m sure that what we see on TV isn’t a truly faithful replication of mental illness in the real world. But I expect TV channels to exaggerate. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t watch their boring programming.

Sally Engelhart is a College junior from Toronto. Her e-mail address is Scientifically Blonde appears on alternate Thursdays.

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