I recently contributed an op-ed piece to “bro” lifestyle & culture space, BroBible.com. Why?! you ask. Because contrary to popular belief, bros are capable of empathy and concern regarding wider social issues, too.

I admit though that this piece, regarding similarities concerning ignoring mental health issues and sensationalizing relatively spurious factors in the cases of Elliot Rodger and Alyssa Funke (explained below), was pretty difficult to write – how to make is sufficiently accessible but sill engage the issues with the measure of seriousness they require?

Let me know how I did, would ya?

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On mental health and sensationalizing tragedy 

(originally here on 6/3/14, reprinted without editorial input)

From what I can tell, there are at least two major parallels between Alyssa Funke, the young woman who took her own life after performing in a porn scene, and Elliot Rodger, the young man who went on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, CA – both suffered from mental illness and both have had that fact buried underneath buzz words like “porn” and “gun control.”

Politicians use buzz words – buzz issues – to distract from larger scale social problems all the time. “Gay marriage” distracts us from the litany of civil rights we continue to deny LGBTQ folks. Abortion diverts our attention from issues related to women’s health and socio-economic based healthcare inequalities. Waterboarding makes us forget about the global and cultural circumstances that create opportunities for torture.

It’s nasty.

But it’s not just politicians who do this. It’s all kinds of agenda-driven individuals and groups looking to make a point. It’s church and school and lobbying organizations. It’s you, and it’s me too. It’s all of us.

Porn, bullying, and gun control are some of the currently hot and super pervasive buzz issues being used to distract us from many wider social ails – things like poor sex education and variable social-structural factors contributing to an endless array of fragile family compositions. These buzz issues are also often used to draw our attention away from mental health concerns.

Consider the (still technically alleged) perpetrator of the recent Isla Vista murders, Elliot Rodger. Elliot’s weapons of choice included a collection of three legally obtained firearms, but would gun control have prevented the massacre? Given half his victims were killed via stabbing, I’m inclined to say no. Perhaps had he *just* been a racist, misogynistic, self-hating asshole, maybe. But Elliot was all of these things and more – racist, misogynistic, and self-hating, as well as unwell on a level that most of us can’t even begin to comprehend. Take away one weapon, and he would have found another.

In my view, mental health services are the only thing that could have possibly saved any of Elliot’s victims. Sadly though, given the history I’ve seen reported, Elliot himself may have already been too far-gone, the system designed to help him too broken. But hey – gun control!!

Or consider Alyssa Funke, a young woman who took her own life (also via firearm) this past April. Alyssa had appeared in an “audition” scene for CastingCouch-X, and things rapidly devolved from there. Or did they?

Porn shaming and bullying have been discussed widely as major contributing factors in her death. And no doubt, our society’s tendency to be judgey and cruel regarding sex work likely played a part in her decision. But according to Alyssa’s family, she had also dealt with depression her entire life. Years of mental health struggle are thus muted with every mention of buzz issues and clickbait. Because sadly, that’s what a lot of this coverage is. Buy hey – traffic!! And we all know how much porn can sensationalize anything, from food to shoes to science.

In some respects, I get it: it’s certainly difficult to engage something as pervasive and deep-seated as the tragic state of mental healthcare in the United States, especially when your forum is nothing more than a 700-word bloggy news post. But it’s also disingenuous and a little slimy to invoke hot button buzz issues when what we really need are nuanced considerations of contributing factors that may impact the glaring commonality we see over and over again – the tragedy that is mental healthcare in this country.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m no mental healthcare professional, nor do I have any personal experience navigating mental health services. And aside from gut instinct, I know nothing “real” about recognizing red flags (not that recognizing red flags matters with today’s existing laws). What I am though is a sociologist, and what I do know a lot about is identifying patterns occurring in wider society. And trust me when I tell you this – we as a culture have painted ourselves into a corner regarding mental health.

We need to refrain from getting caught up in sensationalizing situations like the Isla Vista murders and Alyssa’s untimely death. Because though the sensationalizing approach may be more gratifying in the short term, it prevents us from engaging the mammoth social-structural issues that are basically slapping us in the face.

In conjunction with greater attention to mental health and access to services, we also need to start being more critical of the distracting clickbait that are buzz issues. I hear it all the time: we as a culture are sooo much more media savvy than we once were, and we’ve all cultivated an ability to cut through the bullshit and focus on the truly significant issues… but have we?

Also on BroBible.com here.

Chauntelle Tibbals is an embedded public sociologist specializing in gender, sexualities, work & organizations, new media, and popular culture. Dr. Tibbals’ research has been published in numerous scholarly journals, and she has been quoted and cited extensively by many cultural and news media outlets. Visit her on Twitter – @drchauntelle

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(pictured: a limited view… image via Shutterstock)