Mental illness takes different forms in different times and places. Before American culture became obsessed with thinness as a standard of beauty, anorexia nervosa was exceedingly rare. In Japan, a culture that prizes social cohesion, people suffer from taijin kyofusho, an extreme fear of offending other people through body odor or appearance. In Malaysia, reports Scientific American, an illness called "amok" (from which comes the expression "running amok") periodically afflicts young men. They respond to perceived slights with a brooding withdrawal, followed by explosions of violence. In Greenland, some seal hunters get a syndrome called "kayak angst" featuring intense panic while out on the ocean.
With our splintering families, declining participation in civil society, and greater alienation, we are nonetheless entertaining ourselves with an endless stream of depraved violence and sexuality. Many kids are not having a family dinner with mom and dad every night, but instead are closeted hour after hour with a shooting game on Xbox. No one is watching with them to offer commentary or perspective.
Violence and sex have, obviously, always been with us. Hamlet has its violent moments. Yet the violence of great literature, or even of ordinary melodrama, was usually presented within a moral context. It was nearly always the case that heroic figures used violence to thwart evil, not for the fun of it.
Some filmmakers scoffed at the "antiseptic" violence of the old Westerns in which the bad guys would take a bloodless bullet, cry "Ah, you got me," and fall from their horses. Far better, it was argued, to show a simulacrum of the real thing.
But viewing realistic violence and suffering, far from repelling or sensitizing people, has the capacity to inure us to the horror, dull our capacity for compassion, and coarsen our sensibilities. Worse, for a subset of unbalanced viewers, graphic violence is perversely pleasurable. It may also be disinhibiting. The Columbine killers were great fans of the movie Natural Born Killers.
It will require tremendous effort, time, and resources to repair our mental health system. But it would be a simple matter of will for entertainers to ask themselves, before marketing a violence-soaked film or game: "How will this affect the mentally unstable?"
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