It’s Murphy Bill season, and every last article, video and sound bite that’s circling counts in the court of public opinion. Tim Murphy reportedly has admitted that manipulation of information for public consumption is a necessary evil in order to push his agenda. Apparently he feels his self-righteous cause justifies his means. But, the swirl of misguided media leaves the rest of us needing to be all the more attentive to the messages flying around.
Unfortunately, Murphy has plenty of unwitting subjects to further his desired message, and one of them is Italome Ohikhuare who wrote and produced ‘The Mermaid’. ‘The Mermaid’ is a about a young woman and her relationship with her brother who is diagnosed with schizophrenia. It is reportedly based on Italome’s real-life experiences with her real-life brother, for whom she claims this piece is a ‘gift’.
The film is an unfortunate 13-minute advertisement for Involuntary Outpatient Commitment (aka Assisted Outpatient Treatment, AOT, or Murphy’s favorite pet), that attempts to paint itself as a “moving love story about a young woman torn between her blossoming relationship with her boyfriend and her chaotic but endearing relationship with her brother.”
‘Love’ is the furthest thing from my mind as I watch the main character (Sirah) interacting with her boyfriend (Jay) who’s attempting to manipulate her into bed, or her violent and erratic brother (Deji) who she screams repeatedly “just needs his pills.” In fact, this film is troubling at many levels both from a standpoint of racism and psychiatric oppression. Here’s a brief list of the whys:
- The film re-enforces dangerous racial stereotypes: Deji is a young black man *wearing a hoodie* and is repeatedly painted as violent and frightening, particularly toward Jay (who is a white man). There is little that could make this film any less racially sensitive given today’s climate.
- Except this: Jay (the white, professionally dressed lawyer boyfriend who is physically attacked by Deji) rescues him from drowning at the end of the film.
- The film promotes significant misunderstandings about how psychiatric drugs work in both the short and long-term: Sirah screams (more than once) that Deji will be alright if he just gets his pills. However, unless we’re speaking of tranquilizer darts (or other heavy sedatives) and unless we’re defining ‘alright’ as ‘incapacitated by sleep’, there is no pill that would have such immediate effect. Furthermore, Sirah’s screechy insistence re-enforces the erroneous belief that psychotropics are the key, ignoring all the research that now suggests that they often lead to little improvement and not infrequently can make things worse.
- The film promotes the idea that people with psychiatric diagnoses like schizophrenia are scary and dangerous: Although there’s little real-word research to suggest that people with psychiatric diagnoses are at greater risk of violence than the average person, Deji has his hands around Jay’s throat three times within the first five minutes of the Mermaid. This is followed immediately by Jay yelling that he needs to be “Baker Acted” and suggesting that he’s going to “kill someone”.
- The film promotes hopelessness and perpetuates the idea that people with diagnoses like schizophrenia will forever be tormented and dangerous: Hopeless statistics and propaganda about the schizophrenia diagnosis are tacked on to the end of the film, and the promotional website spouts this little gem at the conclusion of its ‘about’ section: “But the most unexpected moment comes at the end of the film, when they’re all confronted with…the tragic reality that this story, just like schizophrenia, can’t have a happy ending.” (See the film’s full website here: http://www.themermaidfilm.com )
- The film perpetuates the idea that there’s psychiatric drugs and hospitalization or there’s nothing, and that force is an inevitability: Apparently, Sirah’s been trying to support Deji in almost complete isolation, and the film (however unintentionally) paints that and the forced hospitalization he experiences by the end not as two extremes on a fairly broad spectrum, but as point A to point B on a two-point scale. In fact, her boyfriend reassures her that she “did the right thing,” and had “no other choice”. The truth is, though, that there are many choices in how to support people who are going through extreme states, and great harm done through the use of force. Meanwhile, the use of force, while often an act of desperation by otherwise decent people, represents a failure of the system, and not an inevitability of some hopeless ‘brain disease’. This film does a real disservice by failing to represent any of that.
- As an added bonus, it paints women as shrill and helpless sex objects: Jay seems to be angling to get Sirah into bed at the start of the film. By its conclusion, as Sirah is once again helplessly screaming, Jay must come to her rescue not once (when her brother is drowning), but twice (when she’s crying inconsolably and invites him to spend the night as he’d clearly wanted to do right from the start). Sure, she also has a moment (after Deji is rescued from the ocean by Jay) where she slaps and pins her brother to the ground, but that moment is so unbelievable it’s just plain bizarre.
‘The Mermaid’ is currently being promoted via the Mental health Channel (MHC), as the winner of the Jury Award in their Film Festival. I recently spoke with Managing Director, Harry Lynch, regarding my concerns about the film (among other elements of MHC), and although he said he heard some of my concerns, he didn’t feel that they could take action to remove the film unless they heard from more than just me that it was problematic.
I am hoping that you will hear his words as a call to action and ask MHC directly to remove this film.
Remember, it all counts. Every message going out to the public counts. The messages put forth in ‘The Mermaid’ count (and not in a good way). And, if Harry Lynch speaks truth, so does your voice.
I hope you’ll use it.
You can see ‘The Mermaid’ here: https://vimeo.com/139278058
You can reach the Mental Health Channel here: email@example.com
Sera Davidow is a mother, an advocate, an activist and a filmmaker who devotes much of her time to the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community (http://www.westernmassrlc.org). She entered the mental health system as a teenager and cites “non-compliance” as part of what saved her from a very different path that surely would not have included the freedom she now enjoys from all psychiatric labels and medications.