Mental Illnesses Aren't Punch Lines

April 14, 2011 Holly Gray

Yesterday, I came across a picture of a sign I’d taken several months ago while out shopping. The sign was under a display of eye shadow applicators that each contained two different colors and it read, “Split Personality – brings out the best in both of you.” Two shades of make-up, one for each personality. I’m sure someone fancied themselves terribly clever when they came up with that. But as much as I loathe the idea of suiting up with the PC police, I have to say that glamorizing Dissociative Identity Disorder to sell beauty products isn’t at all clever. In fact, I think that the pervasive use of mental illnesses as punch lines undermines efforts to promote understanding and support for people living with them.


Mental Illnesses as Amplifiers

We unthinkingly create caricatures of mental illnesses all the time:

  • We say we’re depressed when we’re actually just disappointed. I have to work on Saturday this week. I’m so depressed.
  • We use OCD as shorthand for highly particular. Have you seen how organized her closet is? She’s so OCD about her clothes.
  • And Dissociative Identity Disorder gets its fair share of clinomorphisms too. I listen to all kinds of music. My ipod has multiple personalities.

It makes a certain kind of sense and it’s not unique to mental illnesses. “Blind” is, for example, perhaps the most overused metaphor for “unable to discern the truth” of them all. And while I’m not convinced using mental illnesses as amplifiers is by nature a destructive thing, I guess I think if something is already stigmatized to a degree that makes people afraid to admit they live with it, it’s inappropriate to turn that something into a punch line.

2878520711_fbc43352c1_bMental Illnesses Aren’t Funny to the People Living with Them

I worked as a waitress in my early twenties and my co-workers made a few jokes about me having multiple personalities. My knowledge of Dissociative Identity Disorder consisted of misconceptions at the time - I didn't know I had DID - and I thought the jokes were hilarious. I went with it, even arbitrarily assigning names to some of my moods. When I think back on it now, I do so with relief that DID is a relatively rare disorder and the chances that someone in that restaurant had it are awfully slim. Because if one of my co-workers did have DID, how do you suppose all that joking around made them feel? We were trivializing and romanticizing a disorder that is so mythologized, so misunderstood, that most people living with it feel they have to hide it. Though we did so unintentionally, that strikes me as crossing a line - the same line that cosmetics company crossed when it appropriated Dissociative Identity Disorder to sell products.

If there ever comes a day when mental illnesses aren’t so stigmatized, when acceptance and support are the rule rather than the exception, maybe I’ll see the charm of naming an eye shadow Split Personality. Until then, I think it’s obnoxious.

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APA Reference
Gray, H. (2011, April 14). Mental Illnesses Aren't Punch Lines, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 12 from

Author: Holly Gray

February, 25 2016 at 3:56 pm

I feel a certain responsibility to respectfully object to actions or concepts that perpetuate stigma of any group. One of my personal groups are the mentally ill as I am myself mentally ill.
I don't think it would be in good taste to use kids with brain cancer in a humorous light to sell hats. Why should the mentally ill be treated with less respect?

Coalescing Heart
August, 24 2014 at 8:19 pm

Personally, having only been confronted with my dissociative symptoms recently? I find the ad bittersweet, even if the motives were wrong. This month a latent alter surfaced to protect the host-alter from suicide, and as the two took turns hosting and getting to know one another, the bond between us really did "bring out the best in both of us". Being shown ourselves from the perspective of a separate, selflessly adoring person was such a transcendent experience that although the accidental merge did make me more functional than either of us, I may always grieve the loss of both individuals. I almost want to print out the ad as a memorial...
(Also, concerning the use of depression to refer to lingering sadness without a basis in a particular mental health problem, didn't that usage come first? I've genuinely never heard "so-and-so is depressed" in colloquial speech used interchangeably with "so-and-so is clinically depressed" or "so-and-so has depression". It never crossed my mind that the former was in any way a reference to the latter, let alone a mocking caricature. Even the Wikipedia has separate entries for depression and major depressive disorder. :/ )

June, 18 2011 at 5:01 am


June, 17 2011 at 10:06 pm

I get your main point about it being healthy to laugh at life’s bizarreness especially with people who are sharing your experiences, and I’m sure you are very sensitive with your family and friends.
I think the public jokes that Holly was writing about require very different ethics. Because they are spewed into the public domain indiscriminately, the advertisers (for example) have a moral responsibility to be sensitive suffering of vulnerable people and make sure that their jokes don’t marginalize or stigmatize... do you agree that there is a difference?
A small comment on something else you said – Personally, I find being crazy incredibly boring:
unemployment – boring
being poor – boring
same struggles again and again and again – boring
feeling hopeless – boring
feeling isolated – boring
huge effort to appear normal - boring
worry about how others are perceiving you – boring
other ppl’s fascination with your symptoms and other forms of eroticization– boring
I guess it’s possible to have an upbeat take on all the things on my list. And good for you if you can keep things light- seriously, I’m envious of that skill. But for those who feel frustrated and stuck and oppressed and constantly thwarted by their illness, or especially if you are tired of being laughed at, it can be hard to share the joke.

June, 17 2011 at 8:07 am

''Mental Illnesses Aren’t Funny to the People Living with Them''
Well, that might be the case for you, but I think my mental illness is often hilarious. Sometimes the things that come out of my mouth are too ridiculous not to laugh at. I have a family member afflicted with schizophrenia and while trying to help him through it is not particularly funny, some of his specific delusions sure are good for a laugh - cheesecake and dead cats in his cigarettes? A Bangle's cassette laced with LSD? I mean come on. I suppose we could go through life somber-faced and serious, but it seems like that would give more power to the mental illness than it really ought to have.
Humor is based in the absurd and the different, and that's exactly what I am. I worry that being so concerned about these jokes or expressions is a sign of not really being willing to accept yourself for who you are - or to ascribe way too much importance to a diagnostic label. Yes, there are the tears and agony that come with being mentally ill, but there is also the advantage of looking at the world a different way. Life is never boring when you're crazy. It would be nice if I weren't, but it looks like this is going to be a part of me for life - I might as well enjoy it when I can.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
June, 17 2011 at 11:59 am

I'm not convinced that refraining from making other people's struggles the butt of my jokes, however hilarious they may be, is the equivalent of going " ... through life somber-faced and serious ...."
Mental illnesses are, by definition, clusters of symptoms that severely disrupt people's lives. We aren't diagnosed with mental disorders because everything's fine and good for a laugh or two. That's called being quirky, eccentric, a little different but hey, it's amusing. Mentally ill is a whole different ballgame. And sure, if one can develop the capacity to find levity in their own trouble's, that's probably a good thing. But it isn't for me, or you, or a cosmetics company to determine the degree of amusement others should have about their psychiatric illnesses.
And with all due respect to comedy, I'm not going to knowingly treat other people as though the very things that cause them an enormous amount of distress are fodder for my personal entertainment.
Thanks for your perspective.

June, 6 2011 at 8:53 pm

Its nice to hear from you again Holly, Glad to know things are better now.

Holly Gray
June, 2 2011 at 10:54 am

I want to thank you - else, kerri, and Bryan - for noting my absence and dropping me a note here. It was really nice to log in on Monday and find your kind comments. I really appreciate that.
I'm okay. I was just having a tough time. I'm doing better now though. :)

May, 20 2011 at 12:13 am

I'm also concerned.. I sure Hope everythings okay with you Holly. Please let us know you're okay, we all care about you. Like Kerri said above, this blog has helped a lot of people and we appreciate it greatly. I hope to hear from you soon..

May, 20 2011 at 12:00 am

Hi Holly, just wanted to say the same. You've been missed. I hope you are doing O.K. Know that your column matters because you matter, your generosity and caring does make a real difference out here.

May, 12 2011 at 9:04 pm

Hey Holly,
I've really noticed your absence over the last few weeks. I hope you are ok, but I guess you're probably not...I don't want to seem that I'm putting pressure on you, because I'm totally NOT - you have given us so much already with your writing, and I am just so grateful for that. I mainly just wanted to let you know that we (readers who don't know you) care and think about you and are looking forward to you posting again if you decide you want to. Wishing you all the best. el

May, 12 2011 at 4:18 pm

Hi again,
Let me clarify my name. I wrote my book under another name, Maggie. The book is called, AS IF IT DIDN'T HAPPEN: A MEMOIR OF ABUSE, MULTIPLE PERSONALITIES AND HOPE. It is by me, Maggie Claire, who's real name is Judy. You can get it at and Just search with the title. Thanks for your patience. Please feel free to ask me anything. I have nothing to hide here or if I get to speak to groups.

May, 12 2011 at 4:07 pm

Hi, I am Maggie Claire who was interviewed a few years back for DID and its effect in the long term. It is weird to re visit this website. I worked in our state mental hospital for 10 years. I will tell you that I found one or two people who believed in the seriousness of DID. There were NO doctors who helped patients. So, they just diagnosed them with bipolar disorder. No reference was ever made to the patient's life after trauma. NONE! It was awful. One day I blurted out in a meeting, that I had that happen to me and I am fine now. Wow, I told my secret. I coped by not telling anyone except one girlfriend about my history. AFter my kids found out, I told them I was cured. I wanted no one to know because of the distrust or mistrust that might ensue. I am still only talking to the same two people - my friend who was a nurse with me, and my therapist. At the psychiatrist's office, she never alludes to the DID, just the medications and if I have any side effects. I am fine though and would like to give talks on this subject to people.
My therapist says she used psychodynamic type of therapy. She wanted me to learn to trust and rely on someone. That I did and then came the telling.....changing personalities and other things.

May, 5 2011 at 9:54 pm

It's been difficult living with this diagnosis, although I will admit its somewhat easier now that I have a definitive answer. We've been trying to work out a plan on how to treat me, whats best for me, who my alters are and why they are sabotaging me (Another 5150, and I'm going to scream.). Nobody wants to cooperate, So we'll see how it goes, till then I hope everybody can get along.

April, 26 2011 at 5:39 pm

Interesting blog and interesting comments.
I just viewed a documentary Sound and Fury regarding the deaf community and the decision to implant cochlear hearing devices in deaf children born to deaf parents.
In one scene a deaf person rails that he has tried time and time again to get the 'world' to understand deafness and to learn sign language. He is angry that the rest of the 'world' does not seem to understand his particular circumstances..
And it never will.
People with MPD and the people they choose to reveal to will care and the rest of the world will not. It is not the 'world's' job nor obligation to be aware of and understanding. It is up to us, those who live with DID, to conform to the world. We can live well within the world as it is and I think we can be more autonomous and creative than to let a sign for eye make up take up any time or mental effort.
The only thing the 'world' needs to know is how horrific abusing kids is. And the rest of it will all fall into place.
I hope that is a small business who supports a family who sells a lot of make up with that ad.
Everyone has their private miseries. We are not special in that regard.

Coin & Feather
April, 25 2011 at 5:40 pm

I was diagnosed with DID fairly recently. My boyfriend, at the time of diagnosis, was a former mental health counselor. He taunted me mercilessly about it. It came up in every disagreement. No one else who knew about my diagnosis felt the need to do that. Needless to say, he is no longer someone I associate with.
That being said, I am still coming to terms with having DID. It's scary and it's hard enough without being made an object of ridicule. I am with you, Holly. I would like to see people stop making fun of people with mental illness. My nephew committed suicide last year because he was bipolar. His suicide note indicated that an enormous part of his decision to take his own life was because he couldn't take any more ostracization for being mentally ill. I know that his being bipolar played a role too.
I think what you're doing is great. Keep it up.

April, 19 2011 at 1:01 pm

Thanks for pointing out Natasha Tracy's article. It's a great article! And you were correct that I get a little bothered when someone feels as though educating oneself, or others, makes that person a victim. Actually it confuses me more than it bothers me. Education is empowering! Isn't feeling empowered quite the opposite of being a victim?
And for the record, you articulated yourself quite well. :)

April, 18 2011 at 7:02 pm

To be honest, when I first saw the sign, I thought of schizophrenia rather than DID...
I think there is a fine line between getting mental health issues in the public in order to address things such as the stigma; and using those diagnoses without thought. This is the result of someone in a marketing department with too much salary and not enough education/sensitivity, to know the difference.
Saying that, it didn't offend me enough to want to write to the manufacturers and lodge a formal complaint. But, it would make me think twice about purchasing their product in the future. Is this a powerful response, probably not; but it allows me to keep going in the present.
I watched the movie Milk last night, and I was half wondering what would happen if those with a mental illness started boycotting insensitive manufacturers - just as the GLBT population in The Castro started to only go to the GLBT friendly shops. Would be interesting to see if any manufacturers would reconsider some of their advertising and programming.
Take care,

April, 17 2011 at 12:43 pm

Actually, for people who change up their make-up depending on which alter is in control that day, it's not a bad idea. Marketing for Multiples. Although I'm sure it wasn't their intention, it makes me feel validated in some twisted way.

April, 16 2011 at 1:29 am

Hi Holly, this is a really cool topic to debate with lots of different view points. Personally when I see a sign like the one you've shown, I feel it right in my chest. And the feelings of isolation I experience because of my DID get dredged up to the forefront of my consciousness. Many times I have sat by and had to listen to members of the general public prattle on about DID in such inaccurate terms it's actually been scary. And when I see things like this sign, or hear jokes about DID it reminds me that the reality is, that I have to be careful who I accidentally reveal my condition to, because people can gossip and misunderstand, and this can have a real life impact on me and also my children. Once I told a friend about my DID and had to suffer through a very surprising conversation about Demons inhabiting me, and another time one of my alters eluded to a teacher at my eldest daughter's primary school about our little collective, and let me tell you that didn't go down well. I neither perceive myself as a victim in my life, nor am I an alarmist, but realistically I do consider societal misconceptions about DID an issue for me. And the people who made the sign, whilst assuredly innocent of any ill intent, still represent ignorance and a lack of empathy for a condition that is challenging at the best of times, and can be crippling at it's worst. Like Holly, I value empathy and sensitivity, and therefore think it's valid to discuss the appropriateness of this type of advertising. I mean would society accept a sign that said "If you are depressed and just can't take it any more, it might be because you've never tried product A. Get it now and you'll truly know what it's like to live!" I know I've exaggerated this example to the max, but my point is that when you see this you think, how dare anyone ever make light of depression and how dare someone use anyones mental illness and personal agony to sell anything. Yet the constant diminishing of DID in the media and advertising is just accepted, WHY?  Let's face it, it's because a good portion of the population have a poor understanding of DID as real life mental health issue affecting real people. And heh whilst I'm not gritting my teeth every time I see a sign or agonizing over it, it doesn't mean I don't notice, and for a tiny second wish for wider community empathy and understanding of my and others DID, before I move on and get on with my day.

April, 15 2011 at 11:58 pm

I for one get my back up about marketing, but in regards to truth.
This doesn't bother me at all, the split personality eye shadow.. I guess we all lie our thoughts differently.
Tell you the truth, if it had of read 'bipolar eyeshadow' I would be more inclined to buy it!! LOL.. oh it has my name on it LOLOLOL
But I totally agree, the stigma makes it so difficult, I just don'tthink this is a big deal. What's a big deal to one is not to another, so it is really hard to not offend anyone. I still like your blog :) just have a different opinion. xxx

April, 15 2011 at 7:43 pm

Hi Jessie,
I think that many of us who have Dissociative Identity Disorder are not personally bothered by this sign advertising "Split Personality eyeshadow". You do have a point on that level, but I don't see the harm in thinking about the feelings of others.
"To be offended by this ad for eye shadow or see it as some kind of evidence that others who do not have MPD are jerks or ill informed makes the person who thinks that a victim. It is just words and the meaning is ascribed by the viewer."
Jessie, I think there are a lot of ill informed people out there. I personally wish they would educate themselves, and get informed, but that doesn't mean I'm thinking like a victim. It means I wish people would educate themselves. I actually think the people who educate themselves, and the people who are interested in the general public being correctly informed are quite the opposite of victims.
Now I'll give you this much... Many people living with mental illness do legitimately think like a "victim". But think about this:
Perhaps they have not had the support or therapy they need to realize that they are survivors. They simply may not have that knowledge yet, or fully understand their diagnosis. Their diagnosis may still be raw, and they may be sensitive about their diagnosis.
So, what I want to point out is that I think Holly is showing empathy towards these people, and rightly so. They deserve it. Being newly diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder can initially cause fear. I don't think people who are still sensitive to their diagnosis need anything else to add to their anxiety.
Thanks for writing this! I think you are absolutely correct in this statement:
"If there ever comes a day when mental illnesses aren’t so stigmatized, when acceptance and support are the rule rather than the exception, maybe I’ll see the charm of naming an eye shadow Split Personality. Until then, I think it’s obnoxious."
This was worded perfectly, and I couldn't agree more!!
I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Holly. Your thought provoking blog posts have made me a much stronger person. For that.... I thank you!!! :)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
April, 18 2011 at 12:48 pm

Hi Mareeya and kerri,
Thanks for your feedback ... it lets me know you understood what I was trying to say. I was beginning to think I've completely lost the ability to articulate my thoughts clearly!
You both mentioned that feeling hurt or bothered by the pervasive misconceptions and misinformation about mental illness doesn't make anyone a victim. Breaking Bipolar author Natasha Tracy published an article today titled Talking About Bipolar Disorder isn't "Playing the Victim" ... I thought you might be interested in reading it:

April, 15 2011 at 3:37 am

You can look at this language as a negative and find it troubling. I can see that.
Or you can look at it as some small sign that people may relate, in some small way, to the very real problems people have.
I see it as an attempt of people to normalize things they do not know much about. And of course some of that is meant, probably, to be "funny". But this is why, like Jessie, I also don't fret about US of Tara.

April, 14 2011 at 6:27 pm

It is difficult enough living with and getting treatment for MPD without reacting to the outside world. The more that I react to these events such as the sign for 'split personality' or the more I behave as though it were on my shoulders to teach the world about mental illness, the less effective I am in my life. This sign does not harm me. Neither does the slang about an Ipod having multiple personalities or a well maintained closet looking like the person has OCD. It is not my job to scold people or insist that they speak in a particular way that pleases me. Nor is it my job to look for things, sayings and actions that I can label 'offensive.'
I like the term MPD and am not interested in teaching people that DID is not the proper term. Why harp on people who are just trying to live, communicate and do the best that they can with what they got?
If someone wants to use the term split personality to sell beauty products and the term proves to be successful in sales, that does not mean people think MPD people are crazy. It just means they liked the eye shadow.
To be offended by this ad for eye shadow or see it as some kind of evidence that others who do not have MPD are jerks or ill informed makes the person who thinks that a victim. It is just words and the meaning is ascribed by the viewer.
If the world likes and thinks the US of Tara is a funny show and they like it, who cares? It does not hurt me. No one really gives a hoot about understanding MPD unless they are personally impacted and that is true for all mental illnesses etc. Let people alone. Stop trying to make the world think like you want them to.
Have a great good life. Let others do the same.
I have been diagnosed for four years. Lest you think I am just a crackpot who does not understand living hell. I do know it as well as you, I just dont think I need to be the crusader who sets things right, unless it is my life

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
April, 14 2011 at 6:44 pm

"Let people alone. Stop trying to make the world think like you want them to."
"I do know it as well as you, I just dont think I need to be the crusader who sets things right, unless it is my life."
I don't know ... seems like you're attempting to set *me* right. ;)
You have a point. However, I'm still not inclined to go around making jokes about other people's hardships. It's just not my style.

April, 14 2011 at 4:15 pm

I hate to say it, But people with any type of mental disability no matter what it is, will have to live with being ridiculed and being outcasts in today's society. Its terrible to think about.. that a lot of us are no more then something laugh at.
I ran across something similar a while ago. I was on my best friends facebook page, His sister (my ex gf of 5 years) posted something on his wall and made a commented about Dissociative Identity Disorder (It wasn't nice). What really gets me though, is that she is graduating in less then 2 months with her Masters degree in Psychology. We had an ugly break up 4 years ago, I know deep down it was nothing more then a stab at me. Of course nobody else felt that way. I was told to "just get over it" or "She wouldn't say/do that".
People don't understand the power of words, It doesn't matter if its a slogan for make up or a "harmless" comment on someones facebook page. It hurts, deep down inside it hurts.. In fact it still hurts, Its not as easy for me (or anybody with a mental disability) to just forget something as it is for everybody else.
It worries me, I'm starting to see a new Dr and Therapist (Finally, both agree I have DID but another story for another time). Is she making fun of me because she hates my guts? or does she find my disability funny? How good of a Therapist can she be if that's how she see's my disability?
I really hate to say it.. but I feel like its going to be a very, very long time before people start to understand what were going through. There's not much we can do about it Holly, Except swallow our pride, suck in our gut and blow it off.
We are better people, we are stronger then "they" are. The hell we've been through in our lives? Not a lot of people could go through what I have, or you or anybody else with a disability can. Life is easy for some people and very hard for others, Ignore the bad and accept the good.
If anything Holly, it'll make us stronger...

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
April, 14 2011 at 7:02 pm

Hi Bryan,
"What really gets me though, is that she is graduating in less then 2 months with her Masters degree in Psychology."
Yeah, it's disappointing but it's the norm, I think. Hopefully she's got the skills to recognize a dissociative problem when she sees it and refer those clients on.
"There’s not much we can do about it Holly, Except swallow our pride, suck in our gut and blow it off."
It's funny, when I was writing this post I was thinking of other people, not me. Feeling bad that someone at that restaurant might have had DID. Remembering a blogger who was understandably hurt by someone making a joke out of her OCD. I think that Split Personality make-up is obnoxious, but don't worry ... it doesn't hurt my feelings or make me feel marginalized.
I know it's off-topic but I have to comment on the diagnosis ... does it feel better now that your doctor and therapist have agreed on a diagnosis? Does it help you feel more settled?

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