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”
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”
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