Representation in media is essential in today’s modern world. Fortunately, many industries have molded their business and practice to fit what consumers look and feel in their everyday lives. Hollywood is no different but has been lacking in some areas. For example, the misrepresentation of mental illness depiction on television and film. Hollywood has a long history of distorting the facts behind those with mental health conditions.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) states that 1 in 5 adults in America experiences a mental illness. Inaccurate portrayals of mental illness create barriers between the audience and what’s factual. These obstacles can be resolved by reducing stigma and forcing mental health advocates to work overtime to undo these damaging stereotypes. Since its inception, film and television have been the foundation of American culture and many other cultures worldwide. It is no surprise that cinema dramatically affects people’s knowledge and attitudes regarding topics they have little experience with within the real world.
As film and television have developed over time, both have become a means to explore enigmatic concepts and entertain. On the other hand, mental illness has become a central theme in many forms of entertainment. Consequently, it has taken a long way for accurate portrayals. Many characters with mental illness have been portrayed as violent, referred to with disparaging terms, or shown in a comical context that trivializes their illness. That’s why it’s crucial to go over the history of mental illness depiction in entertainment and showcase some ideas of how Hollywood can play a more constructive role in the mental health movement.
History: Inaccuracies in Mental Illness Display
The depiction of mental illness without analysis or therapy has distorted the audience’s perception of what is “normal.” For example, the movie Thirteen (2003) tells the story of a 13-year-old girl engaging in harmful activities such as substance abuse and eating disorder behaviors. Furthermore, the film delves into sexual promiscuity and self-injury, all painted as “normal” teenage behavior. These acts portrayed by characters Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Evie (Nikki Reed) lead the audience to the false idea that such behavior is normalized and even glamorized.
Another example is the 2014 film, The Skelton Twins. In the movie, the twins, played by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, deal with the ramifications of an absent mother that only comes around when she wants something. Though neglectful, abusive, or similarly ignorant, parents can trigger mental illness. However, they alone are not the cause and do not need to be present for a child to suffer from mental illness. Other films that have used this mental illness as a trope include The Sixth Sense (1999), The Cell (2000), and Antwone Fisher (2002).
Lastly, one of the long-overused gimmicks in cinema is the “dark and scary” asylum with rooms filled with “rusty bed frames with striped mattresses” and a mysterious but dangerous basement room. As a result, movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), and Silence of the Lambs (1991) illustrate prison-like mental hospitals. Unfortunately, the illustration doesn’t stop there. Some movies tend to showcase excessive forced medication depiction and harsh treatment of patients.
These and others are mostly seen as horror movies and are starkly different from modern mental health hospitals. However, there are examples of mental illness depiction more accurately and fair.
Proper Representation of Mental Illness
There have been sympathetic interpretations of characters with mental illness. For example, Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted (1999), an adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s book, accounts for her time in the 1960s in a youth psychiatric hospital. The film showcased more realistic and optimistic spending of life in one of these facilities. The film garnered rave reviews from critics, and Angelina Jolie won an Oscar for her role.
Movies can introduce patients and families to specific disorders, create therapeutic associations, and help patients reframe concerns. In addition, certain films can give patients role models or offer hope in bringing out emotion to help patients prioritize values and even facilitate communication. For example, Silver Linings Playbook (2012) with stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. The film features Cooper’s character, who rehabilitates from bipolar disorder and depression. The actions of those around him are supportive and understanding and go as far as to make the movie an offbeat entertaining rom-com.
Some television or series-based shows have expanded regarding proper mental illness representation. For example, Cary Fukunaga’s dark comedy Maniac studies how the mind functions. The Netflix series showcases several patients while examining cognitive behavior and those in an exciting and thought-provoking manner. Fukunaga has stated that his intentions in the show were to “explore the human mind.”
Even films like Prozac Nation (2001) and Garden State (2004) introduce the idea to younger generations that meds are known for their beneficial use. Also, nightmarish asylums and inmate scenarios are becoming less used in cinema. Instead, they showcase modern rehab wards and service users. Accordingly, there are still many other ways to combat the stigmatism of mental illness in film and television.
Destigmatizing Mental Illness
Opinions about movies and series are subjective, and certain elements should be kept in mind to avoid stigmatization and misconceptions. To ensure a truthful, realistic, and authentic portrayal of mental health in movies and series, it is essential to involve persons with lived experiences. These interpretations can be accomplished by including the perspective of a person with lived experience. Using the life story or memoir of someone with lived experience as a basis for a film or television series is a crystal-clear approach to telling the story from their perspective.
Another great way to destigmatize mental illness is to portray sensitive topics with care. Many studies prove that a detailed depiction of suicides in movies or series can severely affect viewers. Young people have been affected by this great, resulting in copycat suicides. 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower documents the protagonist Charlie’s (Logan Lerman) mental health journey. Throughout Charlie’s voyage, the film shows the importance of support from family and friends.
Other methods Hollywood can take in accurately depicting mental illness is by steering away from reinforcing certain stereotypes, telling positive mental health stories, and normalizing mental ill health.
Negative portrayals can create harmful stereotypes. They can develop negative attitudes held by the public, further isolating individuals with mental illness. Consequently, it may contribute to a lack of treatment-seeking behavior from those needing help. Filmmakers should work to make depictions of mental illness accurately as possible. The creative minds of writers, directors, and producers can make entertaining and accurate programs for mental health awareness.