Nicolle Wallace is an elite and excellent television journalist. She hosts a Monday-Friday marathon of two-hour news interviews, MSNBC’s Deadline: White House, in which she and her guests dissect the flood of political stories pouring out of the nation’s capital. Riding the crest of this flood for the last several years, of course, has been the Captain Bligh of American conversation, Donald Trump. Trump’s inevitable dominance of the daily news cycle guarantees that much of the expert talk will recapitulate what has been reported on previous days. This is hardly Wallace’s fault, and she brings heroic preparation, intensity, and palpable human passion to her daily goal of making it all fresh and compelling yet again. My wife Honoree and I are grateful viewers of her program.
Aware of her thematic constrictions, Wallace and her producers made an enterprising decision not long ago: they would embark on an occasional series of mini-documentaries exploring topics rarely or glancingly noticed on regular newscasts. Under the rubric Deadline: Special Report, these segments are being streamed on NBC’s affiliate cable channel, Peacock, and occasionally on Wallace’s MSNBC show.
As Wallace explained to Variety, “The idea is to do multiple series and deep dives into single topics without overlapping too much with what we do on the broadcast.”
This is a rare and noble impulse, yet it comes with a caveat: when you promise to do deep dives, you need to dive deep.
The debut Special Report is streaming now on Peacock: the four-part America’s Mental Health Emergency. Three of the four interview guests offer a tipoff that the Report’s aims are no more than snorkel-level.
These three are celebrities. Granted, they are celebrities who have “gone through a lot,” as the saying has it. Yet their presence as guests only reinforces the weary television trope that no issue will engage an audience unless a super-star shows up to validate it. The travails of Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn and the actors Rosie Perez and Taraji P. Henson, while clearly real and devastating to them, do not begin to embrace the totality of what “mental illness” means at the depths of its menace to human reason.
The fourth-segment guest nudges the Report toward this level, yet it’s a faint nudge. Wallace interviews the estimable Shilpa Taufique, Ph.D., director of the Division of Psychology at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. Dr. Taufique is also the founder of the small Comprehensive Adolescent Rehabilitation Education center (CARES), which consults with distressed children.
I mean no disrespect for Dr. Taufique’s good work when I point out that her segment has the whiff of “obligatory,” and serves to extend the great “sin” of the Report’s first three episodes: the sin of omission.
Omitted is any mention of the emperor of all mental maladies. 1. It goes by several names: serious (or chronic) mental illness. Brain disease. The psychotic family of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder. No journalistic project that calls itself a “special” “deep dive” into “America’s mental-health emergency” has a right to ignore it. Yet they do, routinely.
The ultimate origins of this abhorrent disease are not yet fully understood by neuroscience. It is known to be partly inherited, a (relatively) rare cocktail of flawed genes that usually forms in mid-adolescence, when the brain is subject to a massive “pruning,” a replacement of outworn genes with new ones that will control the brain until the end of life. The chaotic power of these genes, their obliteration of reason and self-awareness, can be touched off by severe stress of various kinds.
One would not know that by watching the four installments of America’s Mental-Health Emergency. One would be part of the vast majority of Americans. It’s possible that Nicolle Wallace and her producers are in the dark—out of their depth—as well. Serious Mental Illness is an awful calamity that calls up primal fear. It repels people who still buy into the medieval superstition that “crazy people,” “whack jobs” and “psychos” can shape-shift into murderous monsters. (Think upon the myths of Dracula, the Wolf Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde.)
This superstition, this bigotry, this denial have taken an obscene toll on society. Half measures and misspent funds drain our wealth. (Think of the homeless crisis and of the mentally damaged people in that population.) Political leaders remain benighted and callous. County jails, urban and small-town, are filled with suffering souls who belong in mental care centers, watched by doctors who can keep the victim stabilized with medication. (The brutal jail version of special care is solitary confinement, which increases psychosis.) General hospitals toss uninsured patients into the streets. Mindless policies such as the HIPAA code, which prohibits family members from learning the condition of a hospitalized loved one, remain on the books. Lobotomies remain legal. The manifold horror stories of psychotic victims barely out of childhood yet brutalized as criminal adults continue apace, as they have since the Bedlam Asylum was opened in 1329. Mothers’ frantic pleas for help, for simple understanding, continue to haunt my in-box and my dreams five years after No One Cares About Crazy People was published. I recall a long evening of emailing back and forth with a mother in Florida, trapped inside her house as her deracinated son pounded on the door, threatening to kill her.
And how has MSNBC/Peacock’s “deep dive” enlightened us?
It pains me to write what I am about to write, Nicolle Wallace. I admire you and know your intentions are good. But I am writing it out of mourning, and in adrenaline and blood.
Of Lindsay Vonn, who suffers from depression, you tell us that she “was the world’s greatest skier and could fly down a sheet of ice at 80 miles an hour.” You tell a panel of Today Show staffers that “Vonn was so beautiful, so vulnerable, so open” in the interview.
I could get you an introduction to Tyler West, a non-celebrity who is also beautiful, vulnerable, and open. Or was. Tyler, who suffers from bipolar disorder and autism, languishes in a federal prison on an unsubstantiated charge of statutory rape, and for crossing the lawn to a neighbor’s house one night in a psychotic state, opening the unlocked screen door, and falling asleep on a sofa. He has been beaten by inmates to the point of brain injury; thrown into solitary; denied medication. I have called Tyler “a symptom of America’s broken mental health care system.” I have contacted lawyers, advocates, even a Senator, asking for intervention. No one cares. Damndest thing.
Of Taraji P. Henson, you report that “Taraji’s character in Empire was a magical, you know, iconic kind of woman. She was tough, she was strong . . . I talked to her for almost an hour.” You continue, “They [the celebrities] don’t say anything about fame. Fame doesn’t protect them from any of this. And what they all said and what Taraji said most powerfully was I get up every day and try to get through the day. Rosie Perez made the same point.”
I could introduce you to many people who are incapable of getting up.
You drew Rosie Perez out on her traumatic childhood. Yet the closest you or she come to a clinical diagnosis was to report that she suffered from “PTSD.” PTSD might or might not have led her into serious mental illness. We never learn.
I could go on—oh, could I go on—but I really do not want to berate you, Ms. Wallace, or to belabor the point. I think I have made the point clear. Serious mental illness, like a certain former president whom you mention daily, seems to be above the law. Or beside it. Or ignored by it. And ignored by most state and national leaders and journalists who might hold the malefactors and policy laggards and brutal jail wardens accountable; increase local mental healthcare centers instead of building new jails; develop guidelines for public/family education along several fronts—and ultimately mobilize opinion for the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Mental Health, which would oversee these and other dire, overdue needs.
Now, there would be a deep dive.
- With apologies to Sidddhartha Mukherjee’s towering 2010 book, The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer.