Ice buckets, racism and mental illness: The summer of 2014

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Three stories have dominated the news of the past week—the police shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri, the death of actor-comedian Robin Williams, and the ALS ice bucket challenge. At first glance, they seem unrelated, but what links each of the individual stories is that each highlights complicated, tragic and broad societal problems—racism, mental illness and incurable disease.

The death of an unarmed African-American teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri brings America’s continued struggle with race and racism once again to the forefront of the American consciousness. Much remains unknown about the precise circumstances of the shooting. But Brown’s death and its aftermath demonstrate that America is hardly a “post racial society.” His killing indicates that we have not made as much progress as hoped, and not just in minority interactions with police. Indeed, the Department of Justice in its most recent report indicated that there were 5,790 reported incidents of hate crime, with nearly 50 percent motivated by race.

Protestors in Ferguson, MO demonstrating over the killing of an African-American teenager by a police officer. (YouTube)
Protestors in Ferguson, MO demonstrating over the killing of an African-American teenager by a police officer.

Robin Williams’ death struck a chord for many people because of the familiarity with his movie roles and the many beloved characters he created. Yet few knew the depth of his battles with depression. Mental illness affects approximately 1 in 5 Americans at some point in their lives, with diagnosis ranging from short-lived and treatable problems to longstanding ones with dire consequences. A Pew Research Center report denotes that 35 percent of Americans feel like we are losing ground in dealing with mental illness.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that hadn’t received a ton of press until the ALS ice bucket challenge took over the internet. Unless you went on an extended vacation without your computer, you already know that the ice bucket challenge has participants dump freezing water on their heads in the name of creating awareness or fundraising for the devastating disease. It has gone viral and, to date, has raised an estimated $50 million for ALS research and care. Approximately 5,600 Americans are diagnosed annually each year; there is no cure.

Each of these stories has generated an enormous amount of press and underscore tremendous challenges. But there has been a disparate public response to each: where millions have participated in the ice bucket challenge for ALS, there has not been a similar public swell to combat the issues of race or mental illness.

This raises an interesting question: Why is it that as a society we are willing to publicly support or attempt to remedy some problems and not others? Why has the ice bucket challenge for ALS gained traction, but a unifying event for issues like racism and mental illness has yet to occur? Does this reflect a collective judgment that racism and mental illness are societal wounds that will cure themselves, or worse, are incurable?

Maybe its because digging deeply into racism is too personal, too painful or too embarrassing, and thus easier to ignore than face. To fully “raise awareness” about racism in an honest way, American routines, behaviors, ignorance, fear and historical patterns must be closely examined. A critical look must be given to where we live, how we organize our cities and neighborhoods, who goes to our schools, our government’s policies, and how our courts and law enforcement personnel keep order. Remedying racism requires listening to, and believing, people who describe an experience that others may not know first-hand.

Like racism, depression often lies beneath the surface, not readily seen. There is no easy way to know who has it or how it affects someone. But to be aware of depression or other mental health issues, means acknowledging that someone who appears perfectly healthy can be suffering from a pain that can be debilitating. Like racism, mental health issues are often marred with a sense of shame.

Perhaps the different response is purely due to diagnostics: ALS is objective. While there is no one test to identify ALS, it is a tangible, physically demonstrable illness. You cannot choose to have ALS, and perhaps the lack of personal volition allows more empathy towards the disease.

Jimmy Fallon, Rob Riggle, Steve Higgins, Horatio Sanz and Roots take the ice bucket challenge for ALS. (YouTube)
Jimmy Fallon, Rob Riggle, Steve Higgins, Horatio Sanz and Roots take the ice bucket challenge for ALS.

Which brings us back to the ice bucket challenge. In the three weeks or so since it has gone viral, millions of people — many of whom are unaffected by the disease — have dumped ice on their heads, sent in checks and invited their friends to join. It’s fun, funny and effective. While there has been criticism mounted against the ice bucket challenge — that it’s slacktivism, or just another selfie opportunity — it’s hard not to be charmed by the good-natured goofiness of it all.

The ice bucket challenge has created a sense of unity and community amongst millions of people who have no obvious connection. But more importantly, it has heightened awareness, started a conversation, and tapped into the generosity and good will of people across a broad swath of society. Rich, poor; Black, White; Republicans and Democrats — they have all gotten their ice buckets out.

Could people be as kind-hearted and united when it comes to the debilitating societal problems of mental illness and racism? Maybe if a few million people get pelted with balloons filled with color dye with “#color shouldn’t matter” or do 20 pushups with “#getting help is a sign of strength,” the door to meaningful conversation and fundraising in an effort to resolve two insidious problems facing our country could be opened. That would be quite a testament to the summer of the ice bucket challenge and the power of internet activism.