The Real Story Behind This Viral 'Mental Health Awareness' Makeup Photo


Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s Associate Mental Health Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway. 

The headline read, “Woman’s makeup transformation sheds light on mental illness.” The woman is a Detroit-based model who goes by Troi. A side-by-side photo shows the “makeup transformation” that covered her black eye. The “mental health awareness” was the fact that her brother, who gave her the black eye, lives with schizoaffective disorder.

It all didn’t sit well with me.

Unless you live or have lived in a house with a mentally ill person, you wouldn’t understand this picture nor my injury. Mental Illnesses & Mental Disorders ARE REAL! Unfortunately, my brother suffers from a severe mental illness called Schizoaffective Disorder (google it) and I just so happened to be in the way when he flipped out. My brother have never put his hands on me before, so of course I was caught off guard.. And this happened right before my birthday.. I cried for two days and cancelled all my birthday plans. It took my mom @famikalouise and my friends @venerated_ & Money to lift my spirits. I felt ugly. I was embarrassed, I was hurt, and I knew the first thing people was going to think was that I got abused or that I got beat up. I just wanted to feel beautiful for my 21st birthday and @thee.waynekash made that happen for me. Thank you so much for that. THIS IS NOT FROM BOXING.

A post shared by Troi (@thereal_troi) on

Here’s the story: After getting into a violent confrontation with her brother, Troi went to a makeup artist to get her black eye covered. She was going out for her birthday. When the makeup artist posted the original before-and-after picture on her Instagram showing Troi’s black eye, people were curious. Some assumed she had gotten into a boxing accident (she works as a ring girl in Detroit), while others accused her of covering up for an abusive partner.

These accusations were untrue and upset Troi, who decided to post the photo on her own Instagram and come clean about what actually happened. She wrote:

Unless you live or have lived in a house with a mentally ill person, you wouldn’t understand this picture nor my injury. Mental Illnesses & Mental Disorders ARE REAL! Unfortunately, my brother suffers from a severe mental illness called Schizoaffective Disorder (google it) and I just so happened to be in the way when he flipped out. My brother have never put his hands on me before, so of course I was caught off guard.. And this happened right before my birthday.. I cried for two days and cancelled all my birthday plans. It took my mom @famikalouise and my friends @venerated_ & Money to lift my spirits. I felt ugly. I was embarrassed, I was hurt, and I knew the first thing people was going to think was that I got abused or that I got beat up. I just wanted to feel beautiful for my 21st birthday and @thee.waynekash made that happen for me. Thank you so much for that. THIS IS NOT FROM BOXING.

From there, the story was picked up by Yahoo! Beauty, HelloGiggles, Refinery 29 and other sites. An act of violence was presented as “mental health awareness,” without any explanation of why or how the violence occurred. Because the media so often marries violence and mental illness, the details were easily brushed over, as if the violence alone proved mental illness was real.

When I contacted Troi to ask her about the photo, I was nervous. I didn’t want to sound accusatory but did want to get a better grasp of why she posted the photo. She told me the story of how great the makeup artist was, how she was mad when people thought she was being abused, how she wanted to set the record straight.

When I asked what her brother thought about the Instagram post, she started to cry. 

“We can’t find him,” she said. “We filed a police report. If he remembers what happened, he’s probably emotionally really tearing himself up about it.”

* * *

Troi’s brother did assault her. It was not the first time he’s been violent, but it was the first time he had laid a hand on Troi or anyone else. He usually destroyed property, breaking windows and punching TVs, and then would have a difficult time remembering what happened. Troi said in the past she was usually the one who could calm him down.

“I’m not typically one to speak out about my brother’s illness because it’s a real touchy subject for me and everybody who knows me or knows my family. We don’t hide the fact that has a mental illness, but we don’t broadcast it,” Troi said. “He wants to live a normal life.”

It started when her brother, who’s a year older than Troi, was 15 and moved away from home. One day his friend’s mom brought him back on their doorstep and said, “We don’t know who he is anymore.”

Then, chaos. Her brother, who Troi describes as quiet and goofy, was suddenly angry and volatile. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2013 after being found “mentally incompetent” on trial for committing a minor crime and was sent to the hospital instead of jail. He was there for a year.

Now, he lives with Troi’s mother, and when things get bad for her brother (meaning when his voices agitate him or when he has bursts of anger), his family doesn’t know what to do:

We’re torn. Do we call the police? He doesn’t belong in jail. And maybe this is just a one time thing. But we don’t want to put him a mental hospital that will just keep him there. There aren’t a lot of options for long-term hospitals for him here, and if he’s in there, it’s like he’s in prison. Is he going to think we’re turning our backs on him?”

Although Troi’s brother has been on medication, Troi says he hasn’t found anything that works for him. “The medication makes him so sleepy, or makes him stay all night so he’s not getting any rest, so he’s not even better,” she said.

***

“Violence against family members is one of the best kept secrets in the mental health community,” Pete Earley, a journalist and author of “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness,” said when I showed him the story. His son has schizophrenia. “Families are embarrassed and don’t want their loved one to get into trouble, and advocates don’t want to talk about it because they are afraid of stigmatizing people with mental illnesses.”

People with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, but stats like these don’t help Troi, her brother or her family. When families feel like their only option is to call the police when a crisis occurs, the results can be fatal. Out of all recorded police shootings in 2015, about one-forth involve someone with a mental illness. According to a report by The Washington Post, in most cases when someone with a mental illness is fatally shot, police officers were not responding to a crime but to a call from someone who was concerned. More than 50 people killed expressed they were suicidal.

“Most families are very ill-equipped to handle someone when they get violent, and when the police are called a situation can quickly turn deadly. I called the police, and my son was shot twice with the taser,” Earley said.

Troi said her family has had mixed experiences with the police. By now, the police are familiar with the situation, so local officers know what they’re getting into when they arrive. But she’s worried now that her brother is missing and probably on the streets. After filing a missing person report, her family was advised to press charges because that way, if police do pick him up, he won’t get thrown in jail for something minor but instead might be sentenced to court-ordered treatment. This is how you get someone into treatment involuntarily: prove they are a danger to themselves or others.

“Right now, part of the problem is the family members must wait until someone becomes violent,” Earley said. “We need a better standard than waiting for dangerousness, while also protecting civil rights.”

This has been a cycle for Troi’s family. Troi’s brother will seem to be doing well, live at home, and when things turn for the worse, he ends up in treatment temporarily. He attended outpatient services at New Center Community Services in Detroit for awhile, but eventually stopped going. Troi said he liked the group activities and had a therapist there, but ultimately, he didn’t believe it helped.

“It’s his mind,” she said. “He knows something is wrong now, but he wants us to be able to snap our finger and make the headaches go away, make the voices go away.”

He has gone missing for days at a time, but this is the longest he’s been gone. “He walks and walks,” she said. “He gets in these modes when he’s just walking because he wants to kill himself. He’ll come home with blisters on his feet. It breaks my heart.”

* * *

When I called Troi again to check in a week later, she was in better spirits, but her brother is still missing. He’s been missing for over a month. She says she and her mom are trying to stay positive. They’re going to meet with his attorney and try to get him enrolled in Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Once he has disability benefits, they’ll see if they can get him into a local group home. They’re researching homes close by. Mostly, they’re waiting.

When we think of violence and mental illness, we can’t act like it’s inevitable. We can’t accept it as a common characteristic, and we can’t assume someone is violent based on their diagnosis. But we also can’t forget about families like Troi’s. I do not want to say what is best for her brother, but being on the street should not be the end of his story. Hurting his sister should not be the end of his story. Taking drugs that don’t help him or that produce unbearable side effects should not be the end of the story. There must be more we can do.

“I don’t want anyone who has schizoaffective disorder to feel like there’s something wrong with them, to feel like they’re less of a person,” Troi said. “It weighs on you very emotionally. As a sister, I’ll scream with him, I’ll cry with him, just to try to help him feel better. He gets in these modes sometimes when he’s hopeful, and it’s really beautiful. It’s really beautiful when we see him progress.”

When Troi posted the original makeup photo, people started reaching out to her who were in similar situations — people who had mothers, brothers and uncles with the same diagnosis. Besides awareness, Troi wants to see more research and fundraising for diagnoses like schizoaffective disorder — because while it’s good to know she’s not alone, she knows there’s still so much more to be done.

“Where are the walks for people with bipolar disorder? Where are the walks for schizophrenia?” she asked. “The makeup looks beautiful, but my real story is about my brother. It’s about getting help for people like my brother.”

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.


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