Mental Health in Star Trek is More Than Seeing a Counselor

Voyager Extreme Risk

In part two of my editorial on mental illness and Star Trek, being published on World Mental Health Day 2016, I will focus on two other examples of Star Trek portraying mental health issues that depict a positive future where illnesses are understood and the people around our characters help. I also suggest that we work together to break down stigmas, and be there for those we love when they struggle with mental illness.

At Star Trek conventions, it is not uncommon for someone to bravely step up to the microphone and state that a series, a character, or Star Trek itself, helped save their lives during a rough time. James Doohan often recounted a famous story of receiving a letter from a depressed fan who wanted to commit suicide. Doohan was so distressed that he looked up the woman’s phone number, called her, and asked that she attend the next nearest convention to her, one in Indianapolis.

She showed up, and Doohan realized that the woman was genuinely suicidal. He felt as if she was not receiving the proper help, so he did what he could and made her promise to attend another convention in two weeks in St. Louis. Doohan kept this up for some time, inviting the woman to 18 conventions over the course of years. During each interaction, Doohan spoke to the woman with kindness and encouraged her with his words and smile.

Unfortunately, the woman failed to appear at the 19th convention. Doohan had lost her contact information, could not reach her, and feared the worst. The woman went silent for eight years before contacting Doohan again, this time to tell him that she was alive and well, and that her life was back on track, and to thank him for what he had done as she had just completed a Masters in Electrical Engineering. The woman attributed where she was in life to Doohan, who, until the his unfortunate passing, maintained that was the best thing he had done in his life.

These words come from a man who fought in World War II as a Captain in the Royal Canadian Artillery Regiment. He was a soldier who stormed Juno Beach at Normandy on D-Day. His actions helped the Allies turn the tide against Nazi Germany.

Yet, despite such an incredible life as a soldier and then an iconic actor, Doohan viewed his finest accomplishment as doing what he could to help keep this young woman going and not give up on life.

My previous article covered the ineffectiveness of counselors in Star Trek. However, therapy is only one way an individual can seek help from mental illness. Having understanding people around us can give us the strength to fight our illness.

To mark World Mental Health Day 2016, we examine Star Trek: Voyager, and particularly two great examples of how friends and colleagues should react when someone they care about appears to be suffering from mental illness in “Extreme Risk” and “Night” from season five.

B’Elanna Torres in “Extreme Risk”

Voyager Extreme Risk

In “Extreme Risk,” B’Elanna Torres appears to be suffering from depression and engaging in self-harm. That depression began when she learned from Chakotay that many of her friends in the Maquis had been massacred by the Cardassians. B’Elanna was concerned because, instead of remorse, she felt numb. As a result, B’Elanna began using risky programs in the holodeck with the safeties off. Every time she would get injured there, it would remind her that she felt something.

What is impressive about this depiction is that, as soon as Captain Janeway picked up on Torres’ behavior–detached in briefings, uninterested in building the Delta Flyer, not arguing with Seven of Nine–she asked Tom Paris and Chakotay to check on B’Elanna and see what was going on.

When Janeway learned about B’Elanna’s use of the holodeck after Torres turned the safeties off whilst testing the Delta Flyer’s ability to tolerate a dense atmosphere, Janeway left her in the Doctor’s care and refused to allow her to return to duty until she was doing better. The Doctor actually diagnosed B’Elanna with clinical depression.

In order to get to the bottom of B’Elanna’s depression, Chakotay visited her quarters and asked her to show him her holo programs so that he could tell the Captain they were safe. Chakotay found a recreation of a massacre, one that B’Elanna only ran for 47 seconds before she began harming herself.

Chakotay pointed out that perhaps B’Elanna is afraid that once she allows herself to feel something, she will not be able to stop. She cannot just shut off her emotions, and she will eventually have to let herself grieve. B’Elanna explains that when she was six, her father walked out. When she was 19, she got kicked out of Starfleet. She was separated from the Maquis a few years later, and just when she feels safe, she learns of the massacre. B’Elanna feels as if she has lost every family she has ever had.

Chakotay tries to convince with her that the crew of Voyager is her new family, and they will not let her stop living her life. B’Elanna does not know how, but Chakotay says they will figure it out together. When under attack from the Malon, Torres asks Chakotay if she can go on the Delta Flyer to assist with the micro fracture problem. She tells him that this is something she needs to do. B’Elanna proves to be essential to the mission as the external hull pressure nearly destroys the Flyer.

Upon returning, B’Elanna thanks Chakotay for what he did in forcing her to face her demons in the holodeck. She then goes to the mess hall and orders her favorite banana pancakes, smiling and laughing after she takes a bite as she is seemingly on the mend.

This is an excellent representation of how friends and colleagues should help those they care about when they are dealing with mental illness. All of B’Elanna’s friends recognized that something was wrong with her, and work together to get to the bottom of it and help her. Chakotay was instrumental, and while his means were forceful, she needed to face the situation that launched her into depression: the massacre of her friends in the Maquis, which triggered thoughts that she would always lose her family.

Captain Janeway in “Night”

stv_night_105

As Voyager traverses a void in the Delta Quadrant where there are no star systems within 2,000 light years, Captain Janeway reflects on her decision not to use the Caretaker to return her crew to the Alpha Quadrant, the exact decision that stranded them so far from home. After two months in the void, Janeway has secluded herself from the crew in her quarters where she is sequestered with the lights low. The crew notices the Captain’s absence, and it is even implied that it affects crew morale.

Chakotay goes to the Captain’s quarters to brief her, and he asks if she is interested in playing velocity with him. Chakotay confronts her and says that she has picked a bad time to isolate herself from the crew. Janeway reminisces about the times when they were under attack from the Borg, or when she had no time to think about how they got stuck in the Delta Quadrant.

After Voyager’s first encounter with the Malon and a species indigenous to the void, a worried Chakotay calls Tuvok into the briefing room. He is very concerned about the captain’s self-imposed isolation; they face a possible crisis, but instead of coming to her place on the bridge, she sent him, continuing her isolation. He asks Tuvok for insight as to any previous instances of this behavior on any previous ship she served on before taking command of Voyager. Tuvok tells him about the USS Billings.

In her first year on that vessel, as a commander, she sent an away team to survey a volcanic moon. Their shuttle was damaged by a magma eruption and three of the team were severely injured. The next day she took a shuttle and returned to the moon alone to complete the survey, although she could have been killed. She was consumed with guilt over the injuries suffered by members of the away team she sent, and wanted to show that their sacrifice had not been for nothing. Chakotay becomes afraid that she will take a similar risk to get them out of the void, consumed with guilt over making the decision which stranded them in the Delta Quadrant. He asks Tuvok’s support in preventing her from taking any such action, which Tuvok pledges.

The crew learn that a vortex is harming the indigenous people in the void. Janeway is determined to shut the vortex to protect the native aliens. But it can only be closed at its weakest point, inside the void and she has no intention of asking the crew to again sacrifice their own way out to protect strangers. She has Chakotay assemble senior staff on the bridge.

She outlines her plan: they will go to the vortex, and, once there, she will stay behind in a shuttle and destroy the vortex from inside the void, after Voyager enters. They will continue on without her. But Chakotay, after his talk with Tuvok, is expecting something like this. He informed Tuvok and the other senior staff, and they all know what their response will be. One by one, they all refuse to let her sacrifice herself. She is outwardly angry at this rank insubordination, but it is evident that she is actually touched by their action. Janeway abandons her plan and asks for suggestions.

The isolation of the void forced Janeway to become introspective and revisit her decisions, especially the one to not use the Caretaker to bring the crew home immediately. She feels she has failed the crew, and considers sacrificing herself to cut two years off of Voyager’s journey home. Thankfully, none of her officers would let her go through with her plan. Janeway was possibly suicidal in a sense, where she was willing to put herself in a perilous situation so that her crew would benefit. In that way, she could atone for her decision that left her crew stranded. Thankfully, her crew recognized what she was doing and refused to let her. Another fine example of the Voyager family preventing one of their own from harming themselves.

Star Trek as a Tool to Improve Mental Health

I contend that, for all of the fans who claim Star Trek saved their lives, including the woman who was in contact with Doohan, it was their own strength that helped them develop the courage to push on. Friends and family can intervene and give you support, but it is up to you to get the help which will see you get better.

Tools that assist us in controlling or overcoming mental illness come in a wide variety: psychotherapy, medicine, positive thinking, breathing exercises, defeating negative thoughts through Socratic questioning, our friends and loved ones, and the parts of our life we love.

Mental illness is difficult to control or overcome with one tool alone. Individuals often need an arsenal of tools to help them improve from anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and other maladies. Having a vast stable of tools is essential because what is effective for one individual may not be for another, or even one trigger and another.

In my case, Star Trek was a beloved friend I always could turn to that made me feel better. When I was anxious or depressed, I would throw on my favorite episode or film and be immersed in my ideal universe. It never made my problems go away nor did it cure my illness, but it would divert my attention from constant ruminating and, at least momentarily, make me happy.

Let’s Come Together and Break Down Stigmas

As I stated in my previous article, mental illness is quite pervasive in our society. I would venture to guess, based on my own experiences at conventions, that it is also pervasive in our Star Trek family.

I want you to know that I am a Star Trek fan who struggles with mental illness. I have generalized anxiety disorder with panic attacks, depression, and I attempted to kill myself in 2015. I am doing much better, but I have to work to maintain my mental health. One never automatically becomes better, rather it is something that needs to be closely managed.

If you suffer from any kind of mental illness, first I want you to know that you are not alone. There are a great deal more of us than you think. The art that fills us with such happiness can bring us together. It can help us unburden ourselves from our struggles.

Star Trek is more than just a science fiction franchise, it is a way of life. It is something we can enjoy on our own, or use to connect with others. A way for us to hope for and work toward that better future envisioned by Gene Roddenberry and the artists who followed him.

As I share my story with others, they share stories of their own struggles with me. The unfortunate truth is that mental illness has carried a stigma with it, but we are breaking down those barriers, just as we broke down the barriers about being Star Trek fans. Just as Star Trek broke down barriers in entertainment itself. Our fandom is no longer something for us to hide for fear of ridicule, but something for which we can be proud.

I ask, should you feel comfortable, to use the comments section to share your stories of how Star Trek lifts you up. Let us use stories of our darkest times to come together as a family, just like Voyager showed two examples of the crew caring for their own.


Read Part One Here

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Great articles. Thanks for writing them. I do not have any issues with mentail illness personally, but if I ever need to help someone in such a situation, I will remember what I’ve just read.

First. Good article and good to see mental healh being talked about on here. Star Trek truly is a force for good. Sadly never met James Doohan but his actions speak volumes that he is a good man.

I’ve been an introvert and have had social anxiety since high school. I only recently realized that this is why I have identified with Seven of Nine over all other Trek characters. I’ve been making a one page comic about it along with a tattoo-style pin-up of her that I will send along to Trek Movie when I am done… I plan to have them at Los Angeles Comic-con (formerly Comikaze) at the end of October.

Dear John, thank you for your article. As a student of a clinical master’s program in psychology I find this perspective on Star Trek very interesting. I always felt that the philosophy, positive future, tolerance, social support displayed by the crew members, the altruism, the open-mindedness – that all that was very valuable to have on TV. Personally, the crews were my friends too, I can relate how the escapism was a functional coping-mechanism for you at the time, as a teenager it was similiar for me. Why don’t you start something like a “Star Trek Fans for Mental Health” Initiatve or NGO? Maybe there’s a better acronym, anyone? Start a hotline and/or chat where Star Trek Fans volunteer their time to give people in need a chance to be listened to? Start an online community where we can discuss Star Trek, mental health and psychology? Maybe a shared love of Star Trek and the inspiring ideals of altruism would be a great connecting tissue for such a community of Star Trek fans who want to give back, want to actually live and explore the philosophy that the shows try to communicate in an online-dialoge, relating relevant literature, links, etc.. One could also put on “STFMH” conferences, where fans and experts (psychologists, cognitive-neuroscientists, tech-people, medical doctors, people who experienced what we call “abnormal states of consciousness” or “conditions” with other labels, alternative & traditional healing practitioners, philosophers, etc.) could share their perspectives on how we move towards an utopian society… Read more »

At one of my lowest points a few years back, when suicide seemed like the only option, I actually got support from folks on this board. And in some of those years, something silly like a Star Trek movie coming out was something to hang on for – I’d tell myself that I wouldn’t do anything stupid until after I’d seen the next Trek movie (which artially explains why I want them to continue). But generally, Trek represents hope of a better tomorrow. And when times ar enough even a fictional better future means something.

When I was most suicidal in the ’80s, I used to say to myself, “Dammit, if you do that, you’ll miss seeing [fill in the blank]!” (Usually a movie or TV show I was eagerly anticipating.)

I too am interested to learn what Discovery is all about, especially since Nick Meyer (surprised they let somebody of that age into the group) is involved. And I love the ship just the way it is and has been shown in the teaser and concept art (better than the “Akiraprise” yes?).

It’s never wrong to reach out for help. We all need one another here on this beautiful blue marble.

Stronger Together.

*artially = partially, times ar enough = times are tough.

And thanks, John. I’m sad to hear that you went through that – and I’m glad you’re here now.

For me, there are a handful of ST(TOS) episodes, and a couple of the movies, that give me an attitude boost. My #1 go-to episode has always been The Cage, although I dislike the “remastered” version with added effects (particularly the nebulous junk under the series title), and some other instances of tinkering that replaces or “enhances” some of the original effects. But I put up with it. Heck, I saw the 16mm black and white workprint that Gene Roddenberry brought to the Detroit Triple Fan Fair in the fall of 1972, and I prefer that version. I wish I still had the closeup Polaroid I took of him that made him laugh, as he said, “It makes me look like the Frankenstein monster — but that’s what the critics think of me anyway!” (He was standing on a platform about a foot off the floor when I took it, and the flash bounced off his horn-rim glasses.) I also love the second pilot quite a bit, although I must confess that I’m more of a Jeffrey Hunter fan, so still feel that replacing him was a great loss to the original series. Also, the banishing of the Number One character played by Majel made every episode after The Cage a step downward for me…her absence in that role was a great loss. My wife’s favorite episode, City on the Edge of Forever, is also a lesser favorite of mine, and the episode I always recommend to newbies. Romantic, thoughtful,… Read more »

Thanks for your bravery in talking about your own issues.

I’ve struggled with depression for the last decade, and Star Trek is one of the few things that gives me joy, especially TOS, since it was my first Trek. It’s clear that Spock’s divided heritage causes him a lot of pain, and yet he’s so strong and so noble … I find him endlessly inspiring. I do wish he were available, though, to give us all lessons in Vulcan mental disciplines. :-)

@Corylea “I do wish he were available, though, to give us all lessons in Vulcan mental disciplines.” Agreed, but for those of us who have struggled or are struggling with mental discipline, to try to do so may often become akin to trying to keep the proverbial finger in the dam. All things in moderation, perhaps. For me, once depression began to manifest in my life in my early teen years, there was no easy way to keep it away completely. In fits and starts yes, but never for long. Then learning later in my teens that my grandfather had killed himself when I was only a year old (it was the decades long “family secret” after he had fought depression with his addictions to deadly chemicals), I began to see various behaviors among some of my relatives (especially cousins that have depression or other mental illness) making me realize it was likely “passed down” the family tree. And it didn’t make it easier to cope with this knowledge when my father fell ill and I became his caregiver for most of the last decade of his life, but he and I teamed up and made the best of it and enjoyed our great relationship. I too seek out people and things that inspire me, along with being aware of the people and things that do NOT (and choosing to avoid or cut ’em loose when possible). I am exceedingly fortunate to have a wife who is compassionate and understanding,… Read more »

Thank you for writing this and thank you for sharing your own personal story with us.

Excellent article. Well done.

seems like there was a positive aspect of Voy that set it apart from the other shows after all.

Hi John, Voyager is my favorite Trek for reasons you highlight in this article, thank you so much for writing and sharing it. I’ve written about “Extreme Risk” before (even in a paper written for grad school) but reading this I was inspired to (finally) post about my own experience with mental illness and recovery. It’s too long for a comment but here’s a link: http://www.state-of-flux.com/the-medication-worked/. Again, thank you.

Do I hear violins?

and ‘meld’, ‘mortal coil’ and ‘latent image’ have a lot to say about dealing with mental trauma too.

I’ve faced ‘the darkness’ many times down the years. Indeed, I’m going through a rough patch at the moment. The original Star Trek has always been a great escape for me – it saddens me, having been born barely six years after the first manned lunar landing, that manned space travel across the solar system has basically been sidelined. Star Trek at least shows we can get the heck out there eventually!

I’m not sure what to think about the Torres episode. Real depression isn’t something you shake off in the time period of an average Star Trek episode: it takes ages and you have to work at it. The worst bout I went through, some years ago, easily dragged on for a year – I asked for help about five months in after hitting rock bottom.

It’s something DSC would do well to explore: the psychological effects of isolation, of being on a space ship for months or years. Urban life and country life have their issues – I know I loathe living in metropolitan London and hanker for the countryside I grew up in, although the countryside can be lonely too – but they’re nothing compared with being in, in essence, a big submarine.

While I don’t think I ever manifested symptoms of having a “mental illness”, I have had bouts of depression in my life, even to the point of having suicidal thoughts (when I was in my twenties, during a time when years of being bullied and being dismissed as a “non-entity” finally caught up with me). It wasn’t until my younger brother’s untimely demise, when he had been killed in a car accident, that I had to force myself out of my funk. Nowadays, I am a lot more seasoned to avoid getting bullied, and even when I do go through bouts of depression (mostly due to being upset with myself for not seizing my potential earlier in my life), I dismiss those feelings as being temporary. After all, why should I allow others to dictate my path in life, when they are not responsible for it. So, these days, I am in a state of revision. I am no longer afraid to confront others, I am a lot more confident with myself, and I am more social. I still think my biggest hangups involves dating and not being able to develop a repertoire with women. But, I doubt there is a form of therapy that can help me on that…

At any rate, a much better article on mental health this time around. Kudos!

Atoz the Unforgettable

@John Duchak

You have a friend in every one of us here. Always remember that.

@Atoz

That’s a very special thing to say. Thank you so very much.

one of my favorite episodes of voyager is the doctor learns that some of his “memories” had been erased for his own good. they are reinstated and he gets stuck in an ethical loop. I have known a few real people have gone through this. they are stuck fighting and unable to move past ethical, professional, and personal impact of such events have. Even when others have cleared them of wrong doing, the guilt can be crushing to person.

yes, that was ‘latent image’.
janeway and co learned from their mistake of erasing those memories and helped him to get through the loop.
shame it was not referred to again, that re set thing again

the image of an empty holodeck and those two chairs is an haunting one.

this is one of picardo’s finest episodes in star trek if not his career

John – I really have to applaud you for your insightful posts and for your courageous disclosures. We do have to break down the stigmas around mental illness, devise more effective treatments, and ensure they are accessible to those who need these services. After many years of fear, I finally came out of the shadows, admitted to myself and others I had a mental illness and needed to address it. I, too, came close to losing my life to my untreated condition. Thanks for sharing and helping to bring forth a better future for all of us.

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