Jewish Journal

How Invisible Children and supporters responded to the co-founder’s psychotic episode

by Brad A. Greenberg

March 21, 2012 | 10:10 pm

Jason Russell. Photo by REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Well, I was wrong. I don’t mind admitting when I am, but I don’t particularly like feeling this bad about it.

Like many, I didn’t believe that Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell was just suffering from “exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition” last week when he was hospitalized after some really bizarre behavior in Pacific Beach. Moreover, I was surprised to see Invisible Children and many of my friends, several of whom have worked for Invisible Children or are close with the early staff, stand by Russell. In a different context, I thought, this guy would be looking for a new job.

But then news came out today that Russell had suffered from a “reactive psychosis”—and acute reaction to all the sleep he had lost and stress he had endured after “KONY 2012” went viral and every cable news and network morning show wanted him on air. This gibes with what Ford Vox wrote at The Atlantic over the weekend. Vox, a brain injury physician and journalist, wrote:

Based on my read of the reporting out Friday and after viewing TMZ’s video—and this is only one brain injury physician’s reading—it is highly unlikely that Jason Russell’s behaviors in the streets of San Diego on Thursday March 15th were intentional. It is much more likely that he was experiencing a psychotic episode—a manic state—an event as recognizable to some clinicians as a heart attack. There are many possible endogenous or exogenous causes for such behaviors beyond a “purely” mental illness such as Bipolar Disorder (antibodies to certain regions of the brain, for example, or LSD), and these will have to be ruled out by Russell’s doctors. Depending on his medical and psychological history and any other symptoms he may be exhibiting, numerous lab tests and studies could be necessary to determine his diagnosis and treatment.

Now Russell’s family has said the same. The AP reports:

Russell’s family said that the filmmaker’s behavior was not due to drugs or alcohol. He was given a preliminary diagnosis of brief reactive psychosis, in which a person displays sudden psychotic behavior.

“Doctors say this is a common experience given the great mental, emotional and physical shock his body has gone through in these last two weeks. Even for us, it’s hard to understand the sudden transition from relative anonymity to worldwide attention — both raves and ridicules, in a matter of days,” Danica Russell said in a statement.

Researchers don’t know how many people suffer from the condition, mainly because symptoms are fleeting, but those with personality disorders are at greater risk for having an episode. Brief reactive psychosis is triggered by trauma or major stress such as an accident or death of a loved one. Other stressors can include sleep deprivation or dehydration.

I mention this now because Russell’s sickness, for which he will spend several weeks in the hospital, raises very interesting questions about how organizations should respond to leaders who appear troubled.

The world saw Russell as nuts. In what has been a sadly polarized treatment of the Invisible Children cause, many seemed to cheerlead Russell’s personal and very public breakdown. And Twitter ran wild with wholly offensive mockeries of Russell and the cause that Invisible Children has been fighting for. Inside the walls, though, I saw friends and longtime supporters of Invisible Children standing by Russell and simply asking people to pray for him and for the future of Invisible Children and its efforts in Africa.

I was somewhere between. I had the sense that news reports had a lot of gaps and were overplaying the sensational allegations. (For example, Slate originally ran the headline “KONY 2012 Filmmaker Arrested for Public Masturbation”—which they later corrected because Russell wasn’t arrested; the masturbation detail, which never seemed believable, has disappeared from more recent news stories, and I suspect that it’s because it didn’t happen.

I had my own theories, and they revolved around too much alcohol interacting with too little sleep and hydration, and maybe a weak stomach.

All the while I wondered how so many could stand by Russell even if his behavior had hurt the organization they support. Vox’s article was the first to make me think about an alternative understanding of the situation.

I strongly suspect that the supportive reaction to Russell had something to do with the religious perspective shared by many Invisible Children supporters. As I’ve mentioned before, Invisible Children comes from a very Christian place. They’ve gone out of their way to not be perceived as a Christian ministry, but the people involved, and particularly the leadership, are largely from an evangelical Christian background. And I wonder how much that affected the reaction to Russell’s hospitalization.

Maybe it isn’t something limited to Invisible Children’s Christian roots—maybe it’s the religious roots and the culture of compassion that run through the group. Maybe the same would be seen at any number of non-sectarian nonprofits trying to heal the world from a religious place.

I certainly can’t imagine the same reaction if Russell’s employer was a school board or notable local business. Or a celebrity? No way. But, in hindsight, it seems like the loving reaction, the supportive, embrace, was the correct one.

I’m hopeful for Russell’s speedy and complete recovery—and interested to see how he uses his very public breakdown, on the heels of the biggest week since organization had seen, to tell a different story and maybe address another cause.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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