“Grey’s Anatomy” Fumbles Its Treatment of Mental Illness

Sometime in the last year, I heard that if you had kept up with “Grey’s Anatomy” through all of its umpteen seasons, you had spent 300+ hours of your life watching the show.

I’m afraid I’m guilty here. I watch all of the medical dramas on network TV and keep watching them as they morph into quasi-soap operas. “Grey’s” is the worst offender, but it still does just enough medicine to keep me watching.

I was troubled by one of the story lines this last week. Dr. Alex Karev, temporary Chief of Surgery, had a surprise visit from his mother. We learned in an earlier episode when he visited her that she had schizophrenia. One of the ways she managed it was to maintain a steady routine. She worked as a librarian and lived a simple, predictable life.

Though it wasn’t planned that way, Mrs. Karev ended up meeting Alex at a work party filled with lots of people and activity. She handled it well. Found a quiet place to sit and pulled out her knitting, occasionally conversing pleasantly with people who came by.

Alex, on the other hand, did not handle it well. His wife had given Mrs. Karev a ride to the party. Mrs. Karev explained that she’d gotten to Seattle by taking two buses and a train. She was reading about Lewis and Clark on the trip, and marvelled at how easy her travel was compared to theirs.

Does that sound crazy to you? It doesn’t to me either. But Alex’s wife whipped out her phone when she had a private moment and looked up something related to psychosis.

Alex was sitting with his mother once he’d found her, and she said she smelled burning tennis shoes. Alex apparently thought that that somehow made her psych ward material and got pretty panicky.

Turned out that someone had put egg rolls in the oven in a pan that wasn’t oven-safe, and it had started a fire. Alex was so relieved that there was actually a fire, and that his mother wasn’t having a psychotic break.

Several people commented on my most recent post about whether you should reveal your mental illness to people. One said that once someone knows you have a mental illness, he or she will always judge your actions and your words through that lens. No matter how well you’ve managed to control your illness, many things you say and do are suspect.

As I’ve said, my co-workers were exceptionally kind and understanding when I returned from my hospital stay because of a psychotic episode I’d experienced. But I don’t blame them if they were watching me a bit closely. I asked one how the weather was going to be for an upcoming trip. About five minutes after we’d hung up, he called me back, sounding a little breathless.

“Why did you ask about the weather?” he said. I replied that I was just curious about how his drive would be. He seemed relieved that I wasn’t still thinking that I could cause a snowstorm.

Psychosis sounds way worse than depression or anxiety because the word has been hijacked. It’s used to describe people who are violent or otherwise behaving in a frightening way. In reality, it’s a medical diagnosis, brain chemistry gone wrong.

So I get it, Dr. Karev, but I wish your scriptwriters hadn’t chosen to reinforce an unfortunate stereotype on a popular TV show — especially one where the medical professionals should know have known better. Those of us who disclose our history of mental illness risk getting the same type of reaction, whether it’s obvious or not. Some of us are old enough and have been through enough that we just don’t care anymore.

The stigma will never improve until we start speaking up.