Thank God For Mental Illness (Frankie – 2011)
After watching the music documentary Dig! I was checking out The Brian Jones Town Massacre. Wild front-man Anton Newcombe had called their 1996 release Thank God For Mental Illness and the title fascinated me. It was about the most audacious thing I’d ever seen. Who would dare celebrate mental illness in anyway? Mental illness was the thing of dreary pamphlets and scary people on buses, not critically acclaimed lo-fi albums from the American underground. Even if the title was being ironic, glib, sarcastic or otherwise, it genuinely encouraged me. My life was defined by psychological disorders and as a survivor, it’s something I wanted to wear as a badge of pride, not shame.
I’m annoyed by how little empathy there is toward mental illness. Despite a solid advertising campaign during the 90’s (Jimmy’s got depression, can I catch it?) and being told that 1 in 5 Australians suffer a mental disorder, we’re still happily recycling the issue in the too hard basket. This lack of awareness is reflected in parliament where there are frequent calls for the Government to allocate as much funding to mental health as it does physical. In 2008-2009, there were 12.3 million scripts written for antidepressants, an increase of 46% in 12 years. Yet based on my statistics, only 10% of these people talk about it freely. There is still big time stigma attached to even low-level disorders like anxiety. Mental illness = fail.
Mental illness is too easily associated with being a loser. How quickly we forget those who wrangled fragile minds to succeed as artists: Russell Brand, Kurt Cobain, Ray Davies, Stephen Fry, Bill Oddie, Sinead Oconnor, Axl Rose, (all bi-polar). Syd Barret, Daniel Johnston, Brian Wilson (schizophrenia). Woody Allen, Jim Carrey, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, J.K. Rowling, Sarah Silverman, Jeff Tweedy not to mention our own Andrew Hansen, Natalie Imbruglia and Heath Ledger (depression). One listing took me by complete surprise. As a teenager, how much better to be handed a pamphlet about depression with Beyonce on the front than a grim stock photo of a dude on a park bench. Mental illness needs better publicity and cooler public faces, even if they are obnoxious rock stars like Anton Newcombe.
I grew up watching my Mother suffer schizophrenia. While for a large part it was tragic and disturbing, when I think about what I’d ‘thank god’ for, I am reminded that Mum also possesses a madcap sense of humour and appreciation for the soft-hearted silliness of life. She once gave me a rare insight into her ‘voices.’ She was paranoid Mick Jagger was coming to get her and was communicating with Mozart to help, but he’d said he was too far back in time to be of any assistance. I found it delightful. Even the maddest of worlds has its own sense of logic. In the same way we respect the customs of other cultures, we too should respect the integrity of those who see our world through a fractured kaleidoscope.
Anyone talking to themselves on public transport (and not in possession of a hands free kit), usually becomes my favourite. I’ve always felt oddly comfortable around the mentally ill. Once you get over the instinctual fear of the unknown, you can appreciate the honesty of their features, childlike lack of self consciousness, and their captivating, often amusing quirks. I find those who have been broken by life pure and fearless, and there is a space in my heart that weeps for their opened minds. As the Jeffrey Lewis album title says It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked That the Light Shines Through. I wonder if there is an element of the divine in their self-conversation.
“Will you follow me down?” Newcombe sings on Thank God For Mental Illness. We would all do well to follow our loved ones down the rabbit hole of psychological injury. We might appreciate that the line between creative genius and self-destruction is whisper thin. Once we overcome our fears through patience and understanding, we can celebrate this truly brave struggle against these common and treatable conditions.