Lincoln's silver lining


Congratulations to the folks who put the film “Argo” on the screen. Winning the Academy Award for best picture is an honor well deserved. For me, however, I was torn between rooting for “Lincoln” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” Perhaps it’s because of my interest in both the Civil War and mental health concerns. Despite the fact that neither won for best picture, both films hit home with many viewers. In fact, I wonder what would happen if we were able to combine the best of both movies and turn it into a film classic? Perhaps we might call it “Lincoln’s Silver Lining.”

Our new picture would take place during the time of Civil War and would include some of the idiosyncratic/mental health issues portrayed in “Silver Linings Playbook.” If the truth be told, many of the characters who helped Lincoln emancipate slaves, pass new amendments and win the “war between the states” had some powerful mental health concerns to overcome.

It’s been said that “Honest Abe” himself suffered from serious bouts of depression. Much has been written about his dark moods. Add in war, loss of a child, along with a deeply troubled wife and Mr. Lincoln would make a wonderful leading man for our film.

Our leading lady would be none other than Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary, who was always tightly wound, really struggled after the death of young Willie. She would eventually be sent away for psychiatric care by her oldest son, Robert. Losing a son and, shortly after the war, a husband proved to be too much to bear.

No good movie succeeds without the help of some fine supporting actors. Our cast would be filled in by Ulysses S. Grant (suffering from alcohol issues), William Tecumseh Sherman (depression), Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s incompetent and heavy drinking successor) and some others with cameo appearances. Examples might be John Brown (the fanatic), Stonewall Jackson (a religious zealot and hypochondriac), John Wilkes Booth (slightly delusional) and others who would certainly make interesting additions to our film. WOW – what a cast!

Remember all of this took place before psychotherapy and medications. Imagine a scene with Grant and Johnson sitting in an AA meeting? How about Lincoln asking his wife about the kinds of medications she was taking. Add in some music by the Luminaires along with Dylan and Johnny Cash performing “Girl from the North Country” and you’ve got a smash hit.

Now we all realize that “Lincoln’s Silver Lining” will probably never be made, but looking at the proposed picture’s content might deserve some reflection. Mental illness is certainly a hot topic these days. While school shootings and prescription drug overdoses gain much of the headlines, most of those struggling with a myriad of mental health concerns suffer in a far more subtle fashion. In fact, many are able to function at high levels. I guess that’s what this article is really about.

Man’s history is replete with those who have had some form of mental illness. It has been said that Churchill (depression, alcohol abuse) Beethoven (depression) John Nash (schizophrenia) and Isaac Newton (just about everything) all performed great feats in spite of their issues.

Throw in George Patton (who felt he was a reincarnated ancient general), Vincent Van Gogh (T.B.A.) and a bunch of drug addicted musicians (Lennon, Clapton, Crosby, etc.) and it is startling to see how these people ran countries, won Noble Prizes, developed physics, vanquished armies, painted beautifully and wrote great music.

For certain, those listed above made some great contributions to our world. Unfortunately, Caligula, Nero and Hitler had demons who drove them in a far different direction. So, what makes some individuals with mental health concerns kill a bunch of little kids in an elementary school and others to find a way to do wonderful things? Then again, as was stated previously, most folks with mental illness(es) find a way to “just” fit in. In fact, these people are in our families, at jobs and just those whom we happen to say hello to on the street. Confusing thing, this mental illness stuff is.

Over the last couple of decades a number of new medications and therapeutic strategies have been created. Where long ago some individuals were sent to insane asylums, today we’ve become a bit more caring. Unfortunately, we still have a ways to go in terms of treating mental illness. It has been said that one-half of our prison population suffers from addiction and/or mental illness. In addition, a significant portion of our nation’s homeless people are in the same boat. Still misunderstood and full of stigma(s), mental health continues to baffle.

“Silver Linings Playbook” does a nice job of asking us to look at what is normal. It clearly depicts some of those whom society refers to as behaving in interesting ways. As a society, we consider those who have anxiety disorders, Bi-polar illness and addictive behaviors as abnormal, sick or in need of treatment (often times meds). At the same time, it is OK for us to cheer on boxers who beat each other up. It is also OK to paint ourselves and then drink like fish at football games. How about watching shows about serial killers (“Dexter”) and taking people like Glen Beck and Lawrence O’Donnell seriously? And let’s not even begin to go into the topic of why nations go off to war. On an everyday basis, what society refers to as normal is often troubling. For some, it seems that mental illness is the inability to conform to the insanity of normalcy. For others, it is obviously far more complicated.

As was stated previously, much has changed in recent years. Much good – some bad. Two areas of concern for me have been the over-diagnosing of mental illness, along with the proliferation of prescriptions handed out. It seems as though a therapeutic balance has been lost and now medicines have become the focus of treatment over skills building type counseling. Pills in some cases do wonders – but medicating the symptoms is only a part of the treatment dynamics. Are we creating a culture where there is a pill for every problem? Are we expecting medications to teach us about meaning and interacting with others? While it is important to note that many of these medications have proven to be beneficial – relying on them solely ignores some key concerns. Are our “cures” crazier than the issues they were designed for?

Who is mentally ill? What causes such conditions? How much of all this is due to the conditions we create? Moving forward, these are questions that need serious consideration.

One thing is for certain, however – folks who have mental illnesses are still capable of making enormous contributions. They can be great parents, wonderful workers and good friends – just like us.

Often times, when speaking of mental health concerns, the Adam Lanzas of the world take center stage. Obviously significant emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring that the Columbines and Sandy Hooks never again occur. However, it is imperative that we don’t over generalize or stigmatize mental illness. When doing such things, we often times hyper focus – losing sight of some great opportunities. Imagine if we lost sight of Lincoln and Grant during the Civil War.

As a nation, we have to take a close look at mental health. We have to look at our systems, strategies and how we even define it. We also have to make sure to embrace those who struggle – affording them an opportunity to fit in with society (no matter how whacky we might be)! Sometimes a “Silver Linings Playbook” can be found in the strangest places, and other times right in front of your nose. I guess it all depends on who gets to write the script(s). Please pass me the popcorn.

Robert Haughtaling is the director of the East Greenwich drug program and a frequent contributor to the Beacon.


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