Pop Culture and Mental Health

Pop Culture and Mental Health | Dr. Ali Ghahary

Recently, films like ‘A Star Is Born’ and shows like A&E’s 6-part docuseries ‘Many Sides of Jane’, have shone an important spotlight on mental health and addiction. While two very different takes on mental illness, it is pop culture moments such as these that can have the biggest impact on how mental health is perceived and discussed in the world today.

Dissociative Identity Disorder

In ‘Many Sides of Jane’, cameras follow the life of a 28-year-old woman living with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) – previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Affecting between 0.4% and 1.5% of people, Dissociative Identity Disorder is considered to be a quite rare condition, but real nonetheless. Characterized by a disconnect or disruption of one’s consciousness, sense of identify and/or awareness, individuals with DID will often have at least two (sometimes more) distinct identities (also commonly referred to as “parts,” “hosts,” “states,” or “alters”) alongside their main identity, and they will often (and without warning) switch between these identities when in a heightened state, such as stress or anxiety. Each identity will also often have their own ways of behaving, moods, memories and thoughts – in addition to their own names, ages, and even genders.

While dissociation is a normal process for everyone at some time or another (such as losing track of time or daydreaming), it differs from Dissociative Identity Disorder, as DID is the brain and body’s way of responding to severe trauma and is usually a way for the individual to protect themselves from the varying levels of emotions they may feel as a result of the trauma they’ve experienced (such as witnessing an accident, death, or experiencing sexual assault.) In other words, it is a defense mechanism. When switching between personalities, it is not uncommon for someone with DID to experience memory problems or recalling information and knowledge they’ve learned while in an altered state. They may also have a difficult time explaining things that have happened throughout the day. If you find that you experience more than one distinct part or feel as though you’ve lost your sense of identity, feel as though things around you aren’t real, hear voices or have thoughts or feelings that don’t seem as though they belong to you, and have significant gaps in your memory, or find evidence of things you don’t remember doing (such as making purchases and finding receipts), then it could be possible that you have Dissociative Identity Disorder. That being said, these are things that can also mimic other types of mental health conditions and should therefore be addressed with your family physician in addition to a psychiatrist so that you can get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Because those with Dissociative Identity Disorder tend to have higher rates of self-injury and suicide attempts, getting the advice and help of a health professional is crucial.

As for how DID is treated, merging each of the identities/parts together is typically not the goal. Instead, the goal is focused more on finding ways to allow each part to work together. To do that, treatment is often long-term and includes psychodynamic psychotherapy, which can consist of the following:

• Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
• Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)
• Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
• Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

While there are no medications that specifically treat Dissociative Identity Disorder, your doctor may also wish to place you on an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication to help decrease the mental-health related symptoms associated with DID.

Addiction

While a fictional film, ‘A Star Is Born’ (starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga) is one that shines the spotlight on two very real illnesses: Depression and addiction. Drug and alcohol abuse, in particular. In any given year 1 in 5 Canadians will face a problem with addiction; and, in many cases, depression, drug and alcohol abuse can even occur together.

Drug abuse can come in many forms. For example, use of both prescription and illicit (street) drugs. In recent years, Fentanyl has become a much-discussed drug as it has been the focal point of the opioid crisis in North America and is directly responsible for as many as 65% of deaths related to illicit drug use in British Columbia. Other opioids, such as Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, and Morphine are all medications that are commonly prescribed to temporarily treat post-operative pain or other types of moderate to severe pain. However, when abused, can also lead to addiction and even overdose, which can be fatal.

If you suffer from alcoholism, you may find yourself craving alcohol, drinking too much alcohol, and finding it difficult to stop. When you become physically dependent on alcohol or find that your body has built up a strong tolerance to it, you are considered to be an alcoholic. Even if you’re one who only drinks during rare occasions (such as holidays or birthdays), alcohol can have an impact on the body – such as reducing self-consciousness, impairing judgement, and causing blackouts. In excess, these effects are even worse – and overconsumption of alcohol can also later have an effect on the function of your liver, as well as lead to weight gain.

In order to beat the habits of both drug and alcohol abuse, you need to be determined. Treatment will often include in-patient therapy through a rehabilitation program. Such programs will often provide you with access to counsellors, whom will help provide you with insight as to why you’ve chosen to turn to drug and/or alcohol abuse. You will also go through detoxification in which you will rid your body of these harmful toxins. During the detoxification process, it is not uncommon to go through withdrawals, which is something these rehab centres specialize in guiding patients through. Following in-patient treatment, it is important to continue therapy as an outpatient for as long as necessary in order to avoid relapses.

Pop Culture’s Role

Thanks to the aforementioned television shows and films, as well as celebrities becoming spokespeople for various mental health organizations, discussions surrounding mental illness and addiction continue to increase as well as help to remove the stigma that surrounds them. These pop culture moments are important as they allow people to see that their favourite celebrities not only experience the same things as they do, but that mental health is neither something that needs to be hidden nor ashamed of – and, as a result, people are much more likely to reach out for help and seek treatment.

Remember if you or anyone you know is struggling with their mental health, it is important that you reach out to a medical professional as soon as possible. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger (such as exhibiting thoughts of suicide or making attempts), you should call 911.