For many of us, mystery is uncomfortable. We hate not having a grip on what to do in a situation. We prefer to label and assign a cause to something because it gives us control and we know “what to do with it.” Instead of taking the time to enter the mess of real understanding, we take the cheap way out and, in the process, often don’t actually help like we think we are but, in fact, make matters worse. This is the environment where stigmas flourish – things which have no one cause or are too complex for us to want to take the time to understand. And few things seem to possess quite the level of stigma as mental health issues.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s 2016 film Split, we are introduced to Kevin Wendell Crumb (played brilliantly by James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID) who possesses 24 different personalities in his body. We are introduced to several of them in the film: the powerful and obsessive-compulsive Dennis, the woman Patricia, the nine-year-old boy Hedwig, the designer Barry, as well as Orwell, Jade, and (in the movies final minutes) The Beast. After kidnapping three girls, we slowly come to this obvious conclusion – whoever this man is, he is dangerous.
We spend the whole movie going back and forth between two narratives – one concerning Dr. Karen Fletcher, Kevin’s doctor, who desires to try to advocate for and help her patients and the second concerning the girls, where they are, how they will escape, who is this stranger, and what does he want with them. At the end of the day, what we’re supposed to believe about this character is simple (and yet not): this man is dangerous and because he’s not “normal,” he should be feared. Or, as Dr. Fletcher more bluntly says towards the beginning of the film, “We look at people who are shattered or broken as less than.” And it’s that exact sentiment in the public imagination which fuels this stigma. Though I did actually think the film was one of Shyamalan’s best and did really enjoy it, it left much to reflect on. Several things came to mind as the credits began to roll.
First, this film implicit wants us to conclude this man with mental health issues is not just dangerous and untrustworthy, but a monster. And, unfortunately, this is a stigma not felt merely by the character, but one felt by me as well. For a long time, it was hard to be honest about being someone with bipolar disorder because I was fearful people would keep their distance or be afraid of me. Bipolar disorder, in the public imagination, though certainly different than DID, seems to capture images of murderers and quick-tempered men. Is it any wonder I wanted to hide? And I didn’t want to be someone people “understood,” but someone who was known and loved. Kevin wasn’t really known as a human being by Dr. Fletcher, he was merely the object of her study. Kevin’s humanity was only a side topic to discuss his DID. To say it differently, he was reduced to merely his mental health struggles. We didn’t get the fully-developed, nuance personality of a man who struggles to make it each day. We get a violent man who is a menace to society. This stigma keeps people at a distance and isolates the sufferer, who may already be prone to isolation and needs people to help them out of their reclusive tendencies.
Second, we are told the reason Kevin is this way is because of childhood trauma. Again, because of our proclivity for simplistic and one-sided explanations of life, it is easy to see how people can conclude that people with childhood trauma should be feared, especially if Kevin is the normative expression of this trauma. As a result, people who suffer from the effects of childhood trauma (or other traumatic experiences) don’t get empathy or understanding. In many cases, they might get the opposite. And these first two problems relate to my third point.
The church has, unfortunately, not done a great job of pushing back against the stigma of mental health and of trying to rightly understand trauma and its effects. Due in part to the fundamentalist impulse to be anti-science and suspicious of the social sciences – especially psychology– some Christians ground their views of these things in an extreme Biblicism, which can quickly become spiritually abusive to those suffering under the weight of mental health issues. In many cases, the church just continues carrying along the legacy of this stigma of being “not well.”
Please here me: I love the church, warts and all, and I want to see her grow and be as healthy as she can be. I love how much of my life has the church as an integral part of it. But as someone who has struggled with mental health issues for a few years shy of two decades, it hurts to hear bad theology thrown my way. I have lost count how many time some variation of “depression is a faith issue” or “having anxiety means you don’t trust the Lord.” Folks, we must do better than this. If we are to be a welcoming community of God’s people, where the gospel takes deep enough root to give us joy to see anyone and everyone run to Jesus, it must be a place where broken bodies and anxious minds have a seat at the table too. They must be welcomed as they are, complex and hurting, trying to take things one day at a time. Don’t use “God’s truth” as a means to ignore God’s world. Don’t leave us behind in the dust of cliché aphorisms and empty advice.
Shyamalan’s Split is a good reminder that even our best intentions can fall short of well-intended responses. When people with mental health issues fear being seen as monsters, it is hard to openly admit our struggles and, for some, even harder to ask for help when they need it. As Christians, we can offer an alternative to the world’s stigma and give people a place of understanding – where we can pray for them, sure, but also help them find a doctor that can maybe give them some anti-depressants or a counselor who can help them work through issues they have long held on to. In other words, it’s both/and, not either/or. I’m no counseling psychologist and I don’t pretend to be. But what I am – as are all peoples, including those with mental health struggles – is an image bearer who should be shown dignity and respect, along with any other person.
We are not monsters. We are people.