The Downside to Celebrating Mental Illness

Usually people’s mental illnesses become news when they are used as defenses in murder cases – like that of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five young children in Texas in 2001.

Actually, we might wonder why such defenses aren’t used more often — for example, by Susan Smith, who was convicted of murdering her two sons by drowning them in her car.

Obviously, one ingredient in such cases is having a high profile attorney and appropriate experts. I have a friend who is a criminal court judge in the Bronx. After nearly two decades on the bench, he only recently saw his first case in which a psychiatrist or psychologist was called by the defense (he said the guy was a poor witness and did no good).

Which brings up the topic of my post – celebrating people with mental illnesses. Often, when such people appear on TV, the program’s host makes a big point of how important it is to present such cases to educate the public – to better inform people about the condition the person displays.

A frequent self-congratulatory mantra in such interviews goes something like this: “It is so brave of you to openly discuss your condition – this will undoubtedly help so many other people who share your problem.”

In October last year, Jennifer Mee was arrested for murder. In 1997, Mee achieved television prominence as the ‘hiccup girl’ of Florida, due to her constant hiccupping.

At the time of her arrest, Mee’s mother said that her participation in the murder (she is accused of helping two men lure another man to a vacant house where they killed the man) was due to Tourette’s syndrome , which also caused her hiccupping.

Mee was interviewed in jail, where she awaits trial, on the Today show. She – and her attorney – have offered several defenses. Mee has claimed that she didn’t lure the victim. She also was taped admitting that she did. More recently, Mee has claimed that the murder was prompted by the jealousy of one of the killers due to her being with the victim.

Mee’s attorney was originally thought to be presenting a defense based on her neuropsychiatric disorder.  But, now, her lawyer seems to prefer the defense that having appeared on television at such a vulnerable age, before she was capable of processing the notoriety, led her to be involved in the crime.  Mee herself has said that her problem was a curse , “blaming it for drawing the wrong people to her.”  This is ironic, since her arrest has set off a media frenzy, including her current interview.

Another mantra often used in cases where people broadcast their mental or other disorders is that, “If this helps one other person, I will be satisfied that my efforts have been worthwhile.”

But what if the person presenting her case is herself permanently harmed?

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts by The Fix, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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