Charlie Sheen has something to teach us? Get serious!

by Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP on March 11, 2011 · 0 comments

in behavior

Let’s begin with a little humor. OK, here goes:

A cancer patient, a rape victim, and a Holocaust survivor walk into a bar….

Are you amused yet? Probably not. In fact, I’m lucky you’re even still reading this. Why? Because the people in question all have suffered in some terrible way. We know that it’s common decency not to laugh at the expense of other peoples’ suffering.

Why are we laughing?

Yet somehow talk show hosts and others in the entertainment industry never seem to tire of ridiculing Charlie Sheen. And, God help us, we the public can’t seem to resist taking a peek, clicking on the occasional web link, just to keep up with the hoopla, we tell ourselves. Of course, we often feel uneasy afterwards, like when we laugh out loud at the latest Saturday Night Live characterization. We know a man is being kicked while he’s down, and we perhaps know on some level that we all are diminished when we participate. Yet the urge to chuckle along sometimes seems irresistible.

How can we understand this? Perhaps, we tell ourselves, we’re allowed to laugh at someone who’s being such a bonehead: He’s simply behaving badly! After all, we laughed at him in Two and a Half Men when his character behaved in much the same way. Anyone who is this obnoxious, self-aggrandizing and irresponsible deserves to be laughed at. Um, right?

Charlie Sheen, actor and "bi-winner"

Suppose we look a little more closely: Here is a public figure who is not merely making a mistake or two, but saying peculiar things and behaving strangely over an extended period of time. (This thought experiment could be applied to a variety of individuals, whether it be Sheen, a young and wealthy starlet who inexplicably shoplifts or a Congressman whose own staff quits after he refuses their pleas to get psychiatric help.) To “explain” these extreme and perplexing behaviors as simply “stupid” or “asinine” or even “crazy” is to satisfy ourselves with words as substitutes for comprehension.

In our defense, we should acknowledge that an alternative explanation isn’t readily available. Certainly, it would be more charitable to suggest that people like these aren’t fully in control of their behavior. Perhaps they are ill, but we don’t know that. To be sure, some signs of illnesses such as bipolar disorder and substance dependence are apparent, but that’s hardly the basis for diagnosing someone (although that doesn’t seem to stop some commentators, unfortunately).

Two scenarios

However, we can ask ourselves this question: Which scenario is more likely? A) that a bright, attractive and talented individual would – on purpose – do things that cause untold suffering and damage to himself and everyone who cares about him, or b) that he is being affected by a bio-behavioral disorder that is distorting his perceptions, damaging his judgment and compromising his impulse control? If you favor option a), please bring data, because there’s quite a bit of evidence to the contrary that supports option b).

Sorry I can’t close with the humor promised above, but I would like to share a Huffington Post quote from a fellow psychologist, Dr. Robert Leahy, who (without “diagnosing” Sheen), came down on the side of option b), summarizing as follows:

“Laughing at mental illness is a sad reflection of our lack of understanding of its devastating effects. People crash from manias and they and their families and those who love them may feel left alone to pick up the pieces…. Laughing at Mr. Sheen is like laughing at someone who has been badly mangled in an accident. This is serious business. Illness is not a matter of entertainment.”

Suddenly, that irresistible urge to chuckle seems just a little more resistible.

Editor’s note: Just to be transparent, Dr. Ellis has never treated nor is he currently treating Mr. Sheen. Also, if you enjoyed this post, please check out these recent posts by Dr. Ellis:

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