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[Kony 2012] Mental Health and the White Savior Complex

March 21, 2012

‘Invisible Children’ lost its credibility with me in the first 15 minutes of their now-famous Kony 2012 video. They lost their credibility with me when they asked me to display my empathy for child survivors of rape and torture by buying bracelets and putting up posters. The video was tacky, narcissistic and grossly distorted facts to push a narrative about western, military intervention that I had heard a hundred times before.

During the past week, KONY-2012 has slipped into an embarrassing near-obscurity, odd considering it is the viral-iest video in history and catapulted an actual movement in less than two weeks. It’s faintly depressing to consider that having a mental breakdown can damage your reputation, while discussing the “fun” of documenting genocide apparently does not.

‘Invisible Children’ put out the following statement after the unexpected and sad news of Jason Russell’s breakdown over the weekend.

“Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. […] The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. […] ” — Invisible Children […]

His wife, Danica Russell, released a statement Friday night addressing Russell’s health. She wrote Russel “has never had a substance abuse or drinking problem, and this episode wasn’t caused by either of those things. But yes, he did some irrational things brought on by extreme exhaustion and dehydration.” She also said the “Kony 2012” film brought a lot of attention to Russell and he took many of the criticism’s made against the film personally.

As someone who has been around mental breakdowns, I sympathize with Jason Russell and especially his family. Life is so often a struggle, and mental health survival is a harsh part of that reality. But let’s get some things clear.

Jason Russell’s mental health problems did not happen because of KONY-2012 criticism. And unless the process of directing and producing a film is comparable to being in a war zone, it did not happen because of Russell’s work with child soldiers in Uganda. Mean twitter messages do not normally drive men to madness.

It takes a particular type of privilege to feel no qualms about re-appropriating the struggles of some of the most marginalized people in the world to obscure their own human flaws. It is easier, more convenient and certainly more profitable to blame weaknesses on a savior’s nobility like “saving children” (never mind that no children were saved) than something complicated like humanity.

‘Invisible Children’ was enjoying overwhelming and unprecedented success before this incident. Credible, legitimate and utterly fair criticism of the KONY-2012 video were largely left to the margins of tumblr before Jason Russell’s breakdown. For the large part, the public forgave Invisible Children’s lack of credibility with the Ugandan people, apparently simply because the problem of their own un-awareness was “solved” (it didn’t seem to matter that they were still as un-informed as before).

The coverage of the breakdown has been muted and largely respectful, always acknowledging Jason Russell’s “work with child soldiers”. Even now, KONY-2012 continues to raise both money and undeserved prestige for their work in Uganda. Whatever the causes of Jason Russell’s struggles with mental health might be, it did not begin with KONY-2012 critics.

Russell’s reputation as a child rights activist should have been tainted a long time ago — it is ironic then that an event entirely un-related to Uganda, child-soldiers or Invisible Children’s work would contribute to their downfall.

[Image via A Beautiful Life]

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