For those who remember the Ed Sullivan Show or Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, you will recall the late great Rodney Dangerfield, one of America’s best-known comedians. Those born a little later may recognize him from the film, “Caddyshack”. Rodney’s famous one-liner was, “I don’t get no respect!”
Like many comedians, Rodney Dangerfield was a complex fellow. In one interview later in his life, he spoke seriously of having experienced profound depression at various points in his career. I was moved and motivated by his story. I began to use his catchphrase in many of my lectures and classes, changing the “I” to “mental illness” or “mental health”, as in: “Mental illness don’t get no respect!” and “Mental health don’t get no respect!”
I believe these twelve words tell a story and reveal a truth about the way we perceive, speak about and care for mental well-being. Sometimes, we lose balance and make physical health a higher priority, which may have fatal consequences.
For decades, the World Health Organization has been listing depression and anxiety among the leading causes of death worldwide, ahead of cancer and AIDS. Mental illness is recognized as the major contributing factor to the most deadly physical diseases on the planet, such as heart disease. And yet treatment and prevention of mental illness receives a puny percentage of funds globally allocated to physical illness. The stigma associated with mental illness is pervasive and shameful. Our humour, insults and even our exclamations reflect our prejudice and disrespect.
A Canadian television ad I saw many years ago brilliantly illustrates the point. A young man is lying in bed, fully clothed, his sheets rumpled, his hair disheveled. A voice from outside the scene, presumably his mother, shouts at him, “Come on, get up, don’t be so lazy”. In the next scene, the same actor is in a hospital bed, his leg in traction. He is upbeat as his friends and family surround him, signing his cast and supporting him with enthusiastic banter. The scene reverses again, back to the depressed boy in the dark room, an angry frustrated voice demeaning him, then back to the football hero in the bright hospital room, laughing with his crew. The message is so clearly portrayed in under thirty seconds – a physical challenge may bring positive reinforcement, a mental or emotional challenge, humiliation and derision. I think this ad should be replayed often. I call on its essence often in my own life and when I counsel or teach others.
In the arc of my career, over decades, I have had the opportunity to work with heads of state and rock stars, corporate geniuses and entrepreneurs, children and caregivers, media personalities and spiritual teachers. In every case, the priority has been sanity in the midst of confusion, disorientation or crisis. I offered an approach to mental health that provided calm, connection and correction. Along the way, I also met many cohorts in the field of mental health and holistic healing, experts who tested my approach and often invited me to work with their patients, students and therapy groups. I developed enormous respect for the dedicated and committed people and organizations worldwide who explore, innovate, treat, and care for people struggling with mental health as well as the brave individuals who embolden us all through their journey to intelligent and emotional well-being.