by Monica A. Ross, LPC
Who’s calling who an “outsider”? As a recent news article reports Rolling Stone magazine’s depiction of Daniel Johnston as an “outsider folk artist” is paradoxical. Because –as the article goes on to say–Johnston was not only a fixture on the Austin scene but profiled by media as mainstream as MTV.
I remember first arriving on campus at The University of Texas at Austin in the early 90s an undergraduate student and a member of the cohort Generation X. I grew up in a small town just south of Austin born to parents who, similar to Johnston, struggled at times with mental illness. Daniel Johnston’s famous mural “Hi, How are you?” still greets many with a whimsical and friendly presence on the perimeter of the UT campus. It was also the title of the album cover for Johnston’s 1983 album of the same name.
Just as Johnston’s well-known greeting is a feature here in Austin so too is the city’s tagline “Keep Austin Weird” making its appearance wherever it can on tourist items. “Keep Austin Weird” is perhaps a euphemistic phrasing for the eccentricity we sometimes witness in this city of creatives. It is also a public statement and call to action. Walking around Austin over a span of a couple of decades now I can attest that one experiences often attention-grabbing moments.
I’m thinking of the guy who frequently rode his bicycle around the downtown area in the heat of summer his cat resting indifferently across his barebacked and sweaty shoulders. I’m also thinking of Leslie Cochran the miniskirt wearing homeless man who I’d actually run into once and had a conversation with at Opa’s–a favorite local coffeehouse. Leslie ran for mayor of the City of Austin three times. So too, I’m thinking of the variety of displays of quirky Texas humor from bumper stickers poking fun at conservative politics to the taxidermized jackalopes donning the walls of local Austin eateries.
News sources are sometimes biased when it comes to issues involving mental health and when the media presents these issues in a negative or stereotypical way it can feed into social stigma. What often follows then, unfortunately, is social distancing. Those vulnerable in our community are pushed to the outer parts of the circle and the “us vs them” dichotomy is reinforced.
A multiplicity of factors influence the presentation of something like mental illness–biological factors, social factors, and psychological factors. Experts of which I am one do not always have all of the answers. Still, in the sharing of knowledge, there can become a type of competition around the creation of a common discourse. The battle for expert opinion when speaking on complex issues makes sense on the one hand as society has grown more complex and there is no longer an appeal to one singular way of looking at things.
But instead, let’s continue to make space for the multiplicity of voices that coexist alongside the multiplicity of ways of finding meaning and identity. We use euphemisms in order to avoid appearing too harsh and sometimes as a way of connoting ambiguity of feelings around sensitive topics. This ambiguity can also lead to confusion. Which identity takes precedence–was Johnston a mentally ill musician or a musician who was mentally ill? Is Austin a weird city or a city with its fair share of weirdness? It depends on where we choose to place the emphasis.
As Sartre said, “Existence precedes essence.” By existing and interacting with the world in which we live–through the public discourse or via other means–we as individuals and as a society define who we are. Sometimes this involves taking on multiple identities none of which need to take precedence or bear the burden of social stigma.
Johnston was open about having a mental illness. He did so at a time when not many personages were talking about their struggles. One could go as far as saying that his mental illness was both a contributor to his musical talent and at times perhaps it worked against him. I don’t know that Johnston would have identified himself as an outsider–how could he be while embraced by so many people whether “in spite” or “because of” his identification as mentally ill? When drawing attention to issues related to mental health, it is helpful to do so in a humanizing and inclusive way. What better way to start any conversation and especially on the topic of mental health “Hi, How Are You?”
Monica A. Ross, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor living in Austin, TX. She founded Empathic Psychotherapy with the goal of helping people find greater meaning in life by overcoming limiting beliefs. Monica holds an MA in Counseling Psychology from St. Edward’s University and is a Doctoral Student in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at USC in Los Angeles. She enjoys writing creative non-fiction and is an avid music lover. Monica is currently working on a capstone project to address mental health disparities.