Out Serge outside | Breaking down stereotypes of mental health

I recently saw the documentary Outside Serge outside. It concerns Serge Thériault’s wife, daughter and neighbors, who are all his caregivers while he is experiencing a depression that has led him not to leave his home for six years. Mr. Thériault consented to the documentary, but did not wish to appear in it. We only see him briefly at the end, when he has decided to go for a consultation and seems to be getting better.

Marie-Eve Cotton

Marie-Eve Cotton
Psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor

The film therefore ends on a note of hope. I enjoyed it very much. It deals with an important but rarely addressed subject: the experience of family caregivers of people with mental disorders, their own suffering, their feeling of helplessness, their crucial role, their generosity, their limits… It is touching and consistent to reality.

Then, I saw several comments on this documentary that denoted stereotypes about mental disorders, and I believe potentially useful to present them here with additional explanations:

“At the time, I thought I knew Serge, but no. How can we believe that someone who made us laugh so much could hide such suffering? ”

Mr. Thériault was probably not hiding anything at the time. Depression is an episodic disorder. Some people have only one episode in their lifetime, others have several with periods of remission. But between episodes, they have no symptoms, are not in excessive pain, function normally, and have no hidden defects or abnormalities. One can therefore very well be a perky, comical person, a bon vivant, and have depressive episodes during his life.

Comparison with physical illness is always helpful in shedding light on stereotypes about mental disorders. If you meet someone and a few years later they develop rheumatoid arthritis, they are not “hiding” from you some ailment that was gnawing at them silently when you met. He just wasn’t sick yet.

From the moment someone is diagnosed with a mental disorder, we often consider that he is no more than that, that something strange and different from others has always existed in him, that all his behaviors are determined by its condition. But it’s wrong. Outside of their symptomatic periods, people who experience depression are ordinary people who act on their unique personalities, like you and me.

“Serge Thériault cannot have given informed consent to the documentary because he was in depression. ”

You cannot assume that someone is incapable of making decisions because they have depression. There are mental disorders that can severely impair people’s judgment, especially psychosis, mania, and psychotic or melancholic depression. For other disorders, impaired judgment is possible, but more limited and nuanced. We can have a depression and still understand very well the implications of a documentary on our caregivers.

It is not uncommon for people with mental disorders, in addition to being demonized and ostracized, to be infantilized. They are treated as if they have become incapable, when there are many decision-making spheres in their life that are unaffected by their condition.

“Making a film about a man in depression is abuse”, “Exposing someone’s suffering in this way can only drive him deeper into it”.

Here again, I find paternalism. Mr. Thériault is perceived as necessarily unaware of what is happening, plagued by opportunistic documentarians and insensitive relatives who, in collaborating on this film, denigrate and harm him.

Would we speak of a documentary on the caregivers of an artist suffering from cancer? No. However, there is nothing more shameful to suffer from depression than cancer: it is not the fault of the person who has it either, and there is no suffering nobler than others. The prejudice here is to believe that we can only be reasonably ashamed of our pain when we have a mental disorder.

During my life, I have accompanied people who have spoken publicly about their depression, their bipolar disease, their schizophrenia… They made this decision to publicize their diseases so that those who suffer from them feel less alone and that prejudices diminish, as well as to transcend the shame that society makes them bear. The experience has generally been positive for them.

“I won’t go see the documentary, I prefer to remember the nice Serge and the great actor. ”

People who have depression are no less or nicer than others… they are human beings. However, each human being has a bright side (his talents, his successes, his qualities…) and a dark side (his wounds, his limits, his dysfunctional periods…). Suffering is not limited to mental disorders. In life, we all go through difficult periods during which we lose our means (bereavement, separations, professional failures…). Pain is universal and just as much of who we are as our joys and achievements. It is neither in vain nor sterile: we can grow in suffering, become more empathetic to the distress of others, develop resilience, discover underdeveloped parts of ourselves and make them evolve …

Personally, if someone wanted to remember only my radiant moments in life, obscuring my vulnerable times, I would rather have them wiped me out of their memory altogether. I’m not half-human or half of my life, I’m not just what makes others happy, I’m not just about my successes, I don’t want to be ashamed of the fragile part of me or be surrounded by people who are uncomfortable with this vulnerability.

Before seeing the documentary, I had great admiration for Serge Thériault. I liked it in Ding and Dong, The little life, and its performance in Gaz Bar Blues is one of the most masterful dramatic performances I have seen in the movies. Coming out of the documentary, I had even more admiration for him, for all the pain he endured, for the courage to expose his vulnerability to the public in this way after having shone so much. And my heart was touched and opened by the suffering, equally immense, of his relatives who do their best in the context, despite their pain, the time, the moments of discouragement.


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