The world of film has held a long-lived fascination with mental disorders. They have been depicted in every genre of film, from horror (Psycho) to thriller (Shutter Island) to romantic comedy (As Good as it Gets). However, many depictions have been criticised for lacking in authenticity.
In addition, the treatment of mental disorders in film has been flagged as inaccurate. It is important to critically consider this, given the powerful impact film and media can have on our perceptions and attitudes.
In a previous article, I highlighted that even media aimed at young children negatively portrays mental disorder. Characters with mental disorders in children’s films are often referred to as “nuts” or “crazy.” These characters are regularly presented as violent, aggressive, and fear inducing.
According to Professor Otto Wahl, “The image of persons with psychiatric disorders as unattractive, violent, and criminal… appears common in children’s media, and references to mental illnesses are typically used to disparage and ridicule.”
Having been an avid fan of Disney movies in my childhood, I was disappointed to realise that they bear some of the responsibility for these harmful representations. A 2004 study found that of 34 films produced by Disney between 1937 and 2001, 85% contained verbal references to mental illness and 21% of the main characters were referred to as mentally ill. Many of these characters served as objects of mockery or amusement.
Mental illness is also projected to children as something that can turn people into villains (102 Dalmatians begins with Cruella De Vil in a psychiatric ward). Hollywood films have also been condemned for presenting misleading information about particular disorders, most notably schizophrenia. For example, one could be forgiven for leaving a cinema screening of Me, Myself and Irene with the view that people with schizophrenia have split or multiple personalities (some of which are violent).
In response to A Beautiful Mind, Professor Anthony David of the Institute of Psychiatry (King’s College London) says, “Judging from the hundreds of accounts I have been given and hear every day, it is not like this. The hallucinations of schizophrenia are fragmented and disembodied, as are the delusions that sustain them.
“[A Beautiful Mind] manages to reinforce most of the enduring myths about severe mental illness, not least the link between genius and madness, the healing properties of the love of a good woman, and the brutality of some psychiatric treatments.”
Alongside inaccurate presentation of symptoms, the way in which treatment is represented in film has come under scrutiny. The portrayal of mental health professionals (particularly psychiatrists) has been flagged as inaccurate and unrealistic, with mental health professionals on the big screen often breaking ethical professional practice guidelines and codes of confidentiality.
This may be partially linked to negative perceptions of psychiatry. A 2010 report published on the stigmatisation of the discipline of psychiatry claimed, “The public image of psychiatrists is largely negative and based on insufficient knowledge about their training, expertise and purpose. For example, it is not widely known that psychiatrists are medical doctors, and the duration of their training is underestimated.”
Arguably, a more concerning issue, is that the presentation of treatment in film may influence the perceptions of vulnerable groups. A 2006 study in the Journal of Adolescence claimed that watching films depicting characters with mental illness who fail to receive help for their condition, may encourage ineffective coping strategies among depressed and suicidal youth, alongside “a greater tendency to believe that treatment for depression is ineffective.”
Of course, filmmakers are not strictly in the same business as psychologists or psychiatrists. Their job is to entertain and tell compelling stories and sometimes they distort and dramatise reality in order to accomplish this. But given the influential medium that cinema is, should the film industry have any responsibility to counter negative portrayals of mental illness?
Fortunately, it would seem the tide is turning. In Ireland, First Fortnight is a charity-based organisation with the expressed aim of challenging mental health prejudice through the creative arts. As part of their 2014 campaign, they instigated nationwide screening and post-show discussion of Silver Linings Playbook.
The film, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, has been praised as the film that finally saw Hollywood understand mental health problems. Director David O’Russell says the film was originally a gift for his son, Matthew, who has bipolar disorder. “I wanted to treat the characters as humanly as possible. I want people to feel the humanity of the characters.”
Cooper (who plays the lead role of a young man with bipolar disorder) was self-reportedly “ignorant” about mental health issues before this performance. He says, “It has certainly changed a lot in my life.” He believes the film is about “helping people understand that they’re not alone, that the thing they’re feeling, it probably has a name. It certainly has a treatment, and that treatment works.”
Cooper’s attitude reflects the advancement made by the movie industry in portraying mental illness in a more humane and nuanced light. The film made a break from the stereotypical depictions of the past, wherein individuals with mental illness are often catatonic and vegetative or psychopathic and violent.
By examining and depicting the characters in the community and family setting as opposed to an institutional one, the director allowed for a new level of empathic understanding to be facilitated; engaging the viewer to identify the truly human struggle of mental illness that has so often in the past been veiled by fear, ignorance and stigma.
Hopefully, this marks the beginning of a new era, where filmmakers work collaboratively with the mental health sector to bring this long-lived fascination with mental disorder into the future in a more realistic and compassionate light.