Mental illness in the movies: films vs. reality

Mental illness in the movies: films vs. reality

Karina Tukanova takes a critical look at some depictions of mental health in the movies and how they can potentially harm mental health awareness.

Nowadays, it is not surprising that mass media is a major source of public knowledge about mental health; in particular, mainstream movies – but how accurate are they in portraying mental health disorders?

This is an important question to ask, as such films reach so many people, they have a duty to portray mental health problems in a responsible way. Film portrayals of mental health disorders are often quite inaccurate and misleading. Films have a habit of depicting any mental illness – whether it is depression, schizophrenia, or personality disorder – as something that ought to be feared. All too often, characters with mental health disorders are stereotyped as ‘violent psychopaths’, ‘criminals’, and ‘murderers’.

Take the 2010 film Shutter Island, for example. Of course, nobody here doubts Leonardo DiCaprio’s admirable acting skills, yet the character he plays (Teddy Daniels) is far from the best representation of people suffering from schizophrenia. Homicidal, uncontrollable, and violent – this is not what the reality of the disorder is like. Considering that one third of the public already believes that mentally ill people are more prone to aggression and violence (according to the Time to Change campaign), it is hugely irresponsible for mass media to perpetrate these stereotypes. In fact, violent crime statistics show less than 1% of all UK crimes are committed by people with mental health problems.

The reality is that mentally ill people are more likely to inflict harm on themselves than someone else. Instead of fear and suspicion, people with mental health disorders need support and understanding. It is also important to remember that mental problems are far more common than one might think. The Mental Health Foundation estimates that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in any given year, with depression, generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are the most frequently diagnosed mental problems.  Every condition is unique, in a sense that mental disorders affect different people in various ways. Therefore, it is crucial for society to do everything possible to remove stigma around mental health disorders, and make sure these people do not become social pariahs because of the false image they have in media.

Another common misconception that films tend to put forward is that mental illnesses are, in a way, beneficial. Movies sometimes create a romanticised veil around mental disorders, depicting them as something that enhances individual’s experience of reality and leads to intellectual or artistic creativity, at the expense of a more nuanced portrayal. Such films often suggest that even though mental health disorders are difficult, they are part of a trade-off for genius. This is not say that this assumption is not true at all – some of the most brilliant and influential artists have suffered from mental health issues, the classic example being Vincent Van Gogh – one of the greatest painters of the 19th century suffered from depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Nonetheless, he was able to conceive around 2100 works, which critics argue was a result of his battling of mental illness and finding salvation in art. However, mental disorders still adversely affect lives of people, often leading to unemployment and poor standards of living, so we should be careful not to overly romanticise them.

One of the films that, in some way, looks on mental illnesses through rose-coloured glasses is A Beautiful Mind (2001). The movie is filmed brilliantly, with a plot twist that throws off every first-time viewer. It also gives a more realistic representation of schizophrenia a John Nash (Russel Crowe) leads an ordinary life and is not at all threatening or violent. Still, the film hints on the fact that the disorder is somewhat helpful for Nash as it becomes a ‘companion’ for the character throughout his life.

Nevertheless, there is light on the horizon. Some movies and shows are indeed able to achieve a portrayal that stays true to the reality of mental disorders.  A good example of it would be My Mad Fat Diary (2013 -2015). The TV show is a surprisingly honest, funny and moving account of what it is like for a teenage girl to live with mental health problems.  It skilfully integrates mental illness into teenage hood and normalises it. Rae, the main character, is hugely likeable and easy to sympathise with.  She has a mental illness, but it does not define her, which is an extremely important point to take for everyone. Rather than reinforcing the stereotypes associated with mental disorders, this show does a lot to change the way people perceive mental health issues.

Film is a powerful source that can create stigmas. The stigma attached to mental health disorders, and to people who live with them, is a major obstacle in providing better care and improving their quality of life. Therefore, it is important that we treat any source of information with caution. People with mental health disorders are just like everyone else, which is why they should be treated accordingly.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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