Prison Reality Shows, Freud and Mental Health Month 2021

Here we are in May of the year 2021, on the cusp of a monumental mental health pandemic. COVID’s long shadow will surely fall over the whole world, as universal as the night sky, or a traffic jam, or a child taking their mother’s hand. Never before have we had such sophisticated and accessible means for treating emotional pain. The coming years will test their limits.

There is comfort to be found in knowing we stand on the shoulders of giants as this challenge draws near. The man some call the founder of individual psychotherapy, Alfred Adler, died 84 years ago this month. The Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud left the planet 82 years ago, though his presence is often felt in our professional trainings, therapy sessions and armchair musings on ego. And far earlier than these titans made their contributions to humanity, a Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, performed an impromptu therapy session in the basement of the Pennsylvania Hospital. Dr. Benjamin Rush entered the facility in the late 18th century and found mentally ill people chained to the walls on the hospital’s subterranean floor, filthy and neglected by staff. Even more stunning, he sees visitors, who for a modest admission fee are permitted to observe the patients for a little excitement. In a radically subversive move, Dr. Rush began talking to them and the metaphysical healing power of connection worked its miracle—patients began to reanimate.

There have been so many transformative strides in the last century; we must honor and celebrate them all. These victories are triumphs over an elemental human weakness—the condemnation of what we cannot understand.

Does that mean we should consider the door of an incredibly dark chapter closed because locking people up and throwing away the key is unimaginable today? And that voyeuristic gawking for purposes of entertainment is even more unimaginable now that we understand mental illness? Anyone who says yes is either uninformed or blatantly dishonest.

Do you know where the majority of mentally ill Americans live in the year 2021? Let’s make this a multiple choice question:


residential treatment


Yes, it’s the last one.

And often, when sickest and most in need, sitting in solitary confinement—I credit my hometown New York for being one of the first states to make that illegal.

A follow up question: do prisons possess robust mental health treatment arms, complete with social workers, psychiatrists, and spaces for therapy?

We all know the answer.

While today’s entertainment choices fall far short of the inhumane practice of paying to see people shackled in basements, many of us have a taste for voyueristic viewing of the very real human suffering of others on screen. Reality rehab is a genre that’s exploded in recent years; I’ve probably watched every episode of every season of the addiction docu-series “Intervention”. Many of us also indulge in the deliciously guilty pleasure of reality prison shows; a genre dating back to the early 90s, when Cops possessed enough cultural capital to turn the male “undershirt” into the “wife beater”. MSNBC’s “Lockup Raw”, A&E’s “60 Days In”, and Netflix’s “The World’s Toughest Prisons” are some of the recent hits but in a genre constantly releasing new content, it’s difficult to keep up. Prisons have no shortage when it comes to film crews.

Is it fair to suggest we consider the possibility that our embrace of addiction and mental illness media has its roots in the darker rituals of freak shows?

There are five seasons of Netflix’s “The World’s Toughest Prisons” available for streaming on the platform right now. Here’s how the premise is described by the show’s producers: “Investigative journalists become voluntary inmates in the world’s most volatile prisons, where intimidation and brutality rule”.

“Lockup Raw” was recently cancelled after fifteen wildly popular seasons on MSNBC’s weekend lineup to make room for new documentary content, but the show that started it all’s CEO says his company, 44 Blue Productions, “may continue to produce prison-themed unscripted programming in the future”. I don’t doubt it.

I suspect that as we become a society more aware of the prevalence and exquisite suffering caused by serious mental illness, our entertainment tastes will change.

And rather than continuing to wallow in the dysfunction, I’d like to focus on the power we have to upend this perverse paradigm. No solution will succeed though without an exhaustive taxonomy of the problem and its origins. And then we must tear it down in order to build something new.

Hope and action will replace despair and impotence this year as COVID absolutely forces us to face this issue. I feel like Freud, Jung, Adler, and all the other greats are watching us from their otherworldly places and hoping we do the right thing. I, for one, don’t want to let them down.

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