Cartoons That Belittle (Sept/Oct 2004)

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:51

OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND

Sept/Oct 2004

Cartoons That Belittle

Dorothy Rowe

While travelling on a train I was forced to listen to a man who was using his mobile phone to instruct a member of his staff. I gathered that his firm was a printers and that he was giving instructions about the preparation of a flyer for a book published by a publisher who I knew specialized in self-help books. As he described how the flyer should be set out I expected him to say, ‘It needs an illustration. Do a droopy guy looking miserable.’

Such cartoons often appear on pamphlets advertising training courses for mental health professionals. Open a new copy of Openmind and out falls one or two. This kind of cartoon is supposed to help the mental health workers see the humorous side of mental disorders and their miserable sufferers. Many self-help books are illustrated with cartoon characters looking miserable and, once they have absorbed some cognitive therapy of the simple-minded kind, turning into smilies. These cartoons are supposed to show the sufferers that they should keep their troubles in proportion. Everything is not as bad as they think. Whenever I see such cartoons I think, ‘How dare you be so ignorant of what mental distress actually is!’

The ‘you’ I’m addressing may simply be the printer or editor over whom the author or the workshop leader has no control. But more often than not the author or the workshop leader has chosen to use such cartoons. These people have not realised that cartoons always carry a political message. They make a statement about how certain people may be seen. Some cartoons describe suffering in a very powerful way; in the way that Picasso’s Guernica, a painting in cartoon form, showed the world what war does to civilians. Some cartoons denigrate certain people and urge others to hate and despise them. This was how Jews were depicted in cartoons in Hitler’s Germany. Some cartoons show us ourselves in a way we should not ignore.

The last is what the cartoons by Fran Orford and Sean in Openmind do. Fran’s cartoons take me back to the days when I worked in the psychiatric system and I heard people presenting in all sincerity the idiocies which she depicts with such sharpness of vision. In real life these idiocies can be taken for granted because that’s what people have always said or done, but by isolating them in a cartoon Fran shows just how stupid and damaging these attitudes are. Sean’s cartoons are not simply about psychiatry’s refusal to listen to patients when they talk about their experience. These cartoons show us how we all can take what we hear and re-interpret it so that it fits into our own self-serving way of thinking. Often we want to spare ourselves the pain of having to take seriously the suffering of others.

All those behaviours which psychiatrists call mental disorders come from the most terrible fear of all, the fear that ourselves and our world are going to fall apart and everything be lost. I’ve written a great deal about such fear, but even I can forget how utterly horrible that fear is. However, over the last few months there have been two events in my life which threatened my security. When I learned of each event I was terribly afraid. I felt there was a bird caught in my throat, wildly flapping its wings and trying to escape. I couldn’t breathe. It was some minutes before I could manage to take long, deep breaths and calm myself with sensible self-talk. Neither of these events proved to be the threat I first took them for but they were a good reminder to me that for some people such fear lasts for days, months, even years. This fear permeates every aspect of the person’s being and threatens to destroy it.

Cartoonists should think very hard before they dare to depict someone enduring such suffering. My advice to authors, editors and printers would be that, if you can’t afford cartoonists of the quality of Fran and Sean, don’t have any cartoons at all.