This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Psychopathology course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Mental Health.” To that end, each student has to prepare three 1,000ish word posts on a particular class of mental disorders, with one of those focusing on changes made from the DSM-IV to the DSM-5.
The Portrayal of Tourette’s Disorder in the Media by Tyler Whitehead
In the modern world, the media acts as an important informant for everything going on in the world, educating the mass public about anything and everything possible. Although it is one of the largest providers of information on mental health to the layperson, I don’t think it is any big stretch that the media often does not do a good job with the portrayal of such. There is an abundance of stigma placed on mental illness in most societies, even without media misportrayals of such problems adding to these stigmas. Mental illness appears in the media for a variety of reasons (see, for example, Dr. Lack’s documentary series Case Studies in Abnormal Psychology). But, unlike depression or schizophrenia, Tourette’s Syndrome typically appears for one reason – comedic relief.
Tourette’s Syndrome (TS) is the most serious of the Tic Disorders, in which the individual has both motor and vocal tics, although not necessarily concurrent to each other. Tics are involuntary, sudden, and repetitive muscle contractions, which may result in observable movements or audible vocal expression. The tics must be present for more than a year and the individual must be under the age of 18 when the tics begin. Frequently, the onset of the tics begin between ages four and six and worsen around age ten to twelve. It is uncommon for the tics to persist into adulthood, but if they do they usually do not worsen or stay consistently severe. Developmentally, the disorder may start as a simple motor or a vocal tic, that worsens into more complex tics. There are diverse types of tics, but the most commonly known (and shown in the media) tic is coprolalia, which is the expression of socially inappropriate or obscene words or phrases. But, despite being commonly associated with TS, only 6%-10% of those with Tourette’s exhibit coprolalia. Given that TS itself only affects about 3-8 in every 1,000 people, this is a very tiny percentage of the population.
But, however small the number of people with coprolalia symptoms may be, various outlets of media depict most people who have TS with only this (very rare) symptom, most likely because it provides a great shock value or laugh. One of the most widely seen portrayals came in the (pretty terrible) movie Deuce Bigalow:
Tourette’s Disorder has also been portrayed in television shows, movies, literature, stand-up comedy shows, video games, radio, web comics, and even professional wrestling (see here for an exhaustive list). Even rapper and noted psychologist Kayne West diagnosed himself with “little baby Tourette’s” because he speaks whatever happens to pop into his head. Nevermind the fact that there is no such thing as “little baby Tourette’s,” but this disorder, which is in fact, very real, has become the ultimate excuse for acting like a complete jerk and/or saying what ever the person feels like right at that moment, consequences be damned. This characterization is shown time and time again in the media. Now, I am not actually suggesting that anyone truly believes Kayne West has some version of Tourette’s. That would be silly! I am suggesting though, that instead of accurately representing those with Tourette’s, the media goes for the laugh, at the expense of a group of people. I am also suggesting that a more accurate illustration would possibly serve to increase understanding and offer a platform for education concerning the disorder.
Unlike those who depict the disorder in a false manner, people diagnosed with Tourette’s often experience premonitory urges. These urges are a bodily sensation that precedes the tic, which notifies the individual that they are about to tic. The urges can be used so the individual can eventually learn to suppress the tic for a time; however, the suppression can only last for a small time, perhaps long enough for the person to remove himself or herself from his or her current situation and go somewhere else more private. The tics are expressed as a quick, bark-like verbalization that provides the individual with a sensation of relief once released. Another dissimilarity between the media and those with the disorder is that the tics are unwanted. The tics are not directed at anyone in particular and just happen despite the person meaning or wanting to say what they are saying (or doing). The tics seem to be exacerbated in certain situations, particularly those that are anxiety provoking, and are lessened when the individual is more focused on a specific task, such as school work.. For the individual with TS, the tics are not an excuse to be mean or act offensively, simply expressing whatever happens to come to the person’s mind. It is a part of the individual’s life that has real consequences and complications, which can affect his or her academic, social, and work life.
This is not to say that all instances of media illustrate Tourette’s in an irresponsible manner. There are a few occasions when an individual with tics have been represented in the media in a positive way. Two of the most positive are the classic I have Tourette’s, But Tourette’s Doesn’t Have Me and the more recent film Front of the Class. Works like these that highlight TS to demonstrate the true nature of the disorder and the challenges that those with the disorder face from day to day are sorely needed. These challenges can manifest in the individual having difficulties obtaining and keeping employment, inability to participate in an academic setting, or facing obstacles in everyday circumstances that involve social, public settings. Simply being able to see these situations unfold allows the viewer a better understanding of the disorder and those who have the disorder. This understanding will then lead to more compassion and empathy for those with the disorder. It will become something they have, not who they are. For example, the use of those with Down Syndrome in television shows and movies has produced more responsible characterizations of those with Intellectual Disabilities (ID), has created more awareness, opportunity for education, and positive perspectives of those who do have such disabilities. The same could be done for those with any number of disorders, but especially for those with Tourette’s.