Taking a stigmatizing step back with Chuck

by Cody Dolan on June 11, 2010 · 8 comments

in stigma

Those of you who’ve read my previous posts have probably picked up on the fact that I’m a fan of the television. I don’t try to hide my love for the medium, and will defend until my dying day the programs I love. For instance, anyone who says a negative word about The West Wing (well, the first four seasons at least) should probably be prepared for fisticuffs if I’m within earshot. I actively recruit my friends to watch shows I like, argue with them if they disagree and will usually badger them until they acquiesce (speaking of which: Dan, you seriously need to watch Burn Notice. Clint, you’d love Top Chef. Walker, I would recommend Justified, but you like Family Guy so there’s no hope for you).

And this is why it was so disappointing when one of my favorite shows, one I actually look forward to and get excited about watching every week, decided to use the stereotypical mental asylum in a recent episode.

I’m looking at you, Chuck, and I’m doing it with scorn.

Chuck and his luck

For the uninitiated: Chuck is a regular (but very smart) guy whose grand plans and dreams have all been shattered at a young age. He got kicked out of Stanford and now works for the Geek Squad stand-in at a Best Buy stand-in. By chance (or was it?…*cue nefarious music*) he stumbles upon “The Intersect,” a computer program that uploads all the essential knowledge a spy would ever need directly into his brain. For example, our hero sees a bad guy, “flashes” (in the show’s parlance) and instantly knows everything about said bad person.

Chuck starts working for the government while trying to maintain his civilian identity, and hijinx ensue. Hilarious, poignant, thrilling, enthralling hijinx. (Seriously, get the first season from Netflix or better yet, buy it from Amazon.com through SayNoToStigma.com’s e-store, and then thank me in the form of a donation to The Menninger Clinic.)

Three seasons later, and The Intersect is malfunctioning. Chuck’s flashes are incomplete and causing him increasing physical pain. It’s almost as if having a gigantic database full of information forced into your cerebral cortex was a bad idea and might actually damage the brain. I know, hard to believe, right? He flashes on a bigwig from a fictional African nation, assaults said bigwig, is slapped with the old “crazy” label and gets carted off to an asylum for former spies.

Mental hospitals, TV-style

And, because no one seems to be willing to do even the slightest bit of research as to what a mental health facility actually looks like, Chuck ends up in your typical TV-style asylum. There are lots of locked doors; the group activity room is decorated like a prison; all the patients wear scrubs (Chuck wears a robe the whole time!); and his fellow inmates stare blankly at nothing in particular, talk to themselves or only discuss conspiracy theories and other gibberish.

Have a look at this clip, which is only available on Hulu.com (which itself is only available in North America). Quick set-up: Bad guy (whom Chuck was actually right about) comes to the asylum to silence Chuck once and for all. He and his helpers, in their white uniforms with black belt accessory, grab Chuck, drug him and start to interrogate him. Chuck breaks free and seeks help from the other inmates.

See what I mean? And this is from a show I consider pretty intelligent. Unfortunately, I could write another 600 words about the rest of the show, including Chuck’s ridiculous psychiatrist and the way our hero (who has been reliable for three seasons now) gets treated when people think he’s “crazy.” And I admit to having no idea what to do with this:  http://www.nbc.com/chuck/games/which-spy-are-you/

Aren’t we as a TV-watching nation tired of this kind of thing? Is it really that difficult to build a TV set that in some way looks like reality?

How hard is it to use soothing earth tones instead of harsh whites or institutional greens? How much more does it cost to make one of those group activity rooms the entertainment industry is so fond of throwing in their asylums look and feel like a living room (in other words, like the kind we have here at Menninger)?

Set designers from Mad Men go to museums, look at old magazines and interview experts on interior design trends from the 1960s, all so the show can look and feel authentic. But no one from Chuck or House or LOST can ask to see pictures of a contemporary psychiatric hospital?

This kind of willful ignorance is as insulting as it is infuriating.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Renee October 21, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Stigma is one of the major reasons people refuse to admit to mental illness. And because of this lack of acknowledgment they are discriminated against on every level, socially, medically, and with employment!

SJ McKinley June 18, 2010 at 12:30 am

I had a client who needed, for safety, to be admitted to a local psychiatric hospital. Having ONLY watched TV, this person was terrified. They asked if they could bring their own food because they could not eat “prison food.” I don’t know what the numbers are , but in our state the ones like depicted on Chuck have all been closed, so you get a reasonable private or semi-private carpeted room with a moderately nice family room. It’s not Menningers, but it is not a terrifying place where the patient will be victimized.

Are there any stats on the number of “insane asylums” still open?

Kat June 14, 2010 at 10:55 pm

Though I am not a big TV fan and have never seen the show you spoke of, I tend to agree with your assessment of how Hollywood chooses to depict mental hospitals. I believe that this depiction causes the general public to be fearful of seeking needed help at a quality facility like Menninger. A more reasonable depiction would ease some fears helping someone in need get assistance.

ocie stewart June 11, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Chuck works at an Buy More not Best Buys, thanks

Teresa June 11, 2010 at 9:54 pm

It often amazes me that in a culture where being politically correct is so important, there is still so much stigma associated with mental illness.  The creators of Chuck could have easily made the hospital scene more true to modern hospitals.  You have stations like CBS using their influence to help minimize the stigma, while NBC seems to be ignorant to it. CBS =1, NBC =0.

Hayley June 11, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Even though Chuck has some impossible parts in the story line, overall it is supposed to be realistic. So, I agree the creators should have done a better job of making the hospital more realistic.

Hillary Huddleston June 11, 2010 at 7:38 pm

While I am not familiar with the show, “Chuck” and admittedly lack the bandwidth to the watch the clip you included, I think the unfortunate reality is that not all psychiatric hospitals remotely resemble Menninger. I agree that Hollywood could use some stigma-busting assistance in general, but I thought “House” for example was actually a reasonable depiction of what other facilities can be like – at least acute care facilities. The mix of patients and diagnoses, the limitations of staff, the lack of security (ease of leaving to the detriment of patients whether voluntary or involuntary) are a reality in acute care. I appreciate your taking the time to share this and agree that stigma hurts. It is difficult to phrase this response without taking away from your excellent points. Sadly, however, the green walls and scrub clad patients are a reflection of the realistic state of mental health hospitals in many areas. Without mental health insurance parity or parity in mental health care in general, too many who are not blessed enough to access Menninger find themselves in this stereotypical institutional environment. That was my experience in what had been an option-lacking acute care approach to my own mental health. The lack of access, affordability, quality and continuity in care perpetuates both illness and stigma. I am ever grateful for the care I received and self I gained at Menninger. Unfortunately, the clean, colorful, friendly environment and importantly, the high quality and sustainable treatment Menninger provides is something too few people experience. Stigma maybe more effectively combated when more people speak out and demand high quality mental health care for ourselves, our families, our communities. Sounds like “Chuck” certainly isn’t helping and thank you, again, for advocating for mental health and accurate depictions of treatment. Maybe for stereotypes to change, we need to not only “bust stigma” but simultaneously work on changing the system. Untreated and undertreated mental illness can only perpetuate stigma not to mention the tragic consequences the lack of treatment has on the individuals and their loved ones. I’m open to ideas on how to work for systemic change. The work in part helps insure I keep my mind with me – outside of green walls :-)

Walker June 11, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Seriously, man. Give Family Guy a try. You are smart enough to enjoy it for what it is: crude, disposable humor. It’s not there to make a point. It’s there to make you laugh. That’s it.

Also, I’ve been meaning to catch Justified, but it hasn’t made it into the DVR.

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