Let’s Talk About Mental Illness in the Movies

Narration by Brandon

So, we have this podcast about movies and mental health. Mental illness in particular is something that’s very important to me. For those who don’t know, I have bipolar disorder, and it’s dictated a lot of my life experiences. Some movies have great and very accurate things to say about mental illness, like Silver Linings Playbook, which we covered in our first episode. Some movies are wrong and horribly offensive, like Me, Myself, and Irene. But does it matter? Movies are fiction. Does it matter what movies have to say about mental illness?

In 2001, a scientific study was conducted amongst 208 community college students to find out how their perceptions of mental illness were formed and why they mattered. The study showed the 90% of participants learned about mental illness primarily through movies. The study also showed that the less personal connection these people had to mental illness, the more they fell prey to the stigmas surrounding it. For instance, many of the people who claimed they didn’t know anybody with a serious mental illness believed that people with serious mental illness were stuck in remote wards that took care of them, safely away from the public. If that sample is at all indicative of the general population, and I’d bet it’s pretty close, then yes, what movies say about mental illness makes a huge difference.

A national survey from 2006 found that 60 percent of people believe that schizophrenics are violent. It also found that 32 percent of people believe that depressed people are violent. The reality is much different. Yes, there are injuries and deaths that result from mental illness that show up in stats, but these are usually due to self harm and suicide. When you remove those from the equation, mentally ill people aren’t any more statistically likely to be violent than the general public. In fact, they’re statistically much more likely to be victims than the general public.

What’s more, of the crimes committed by people with mental illness, only 7.5% were directly attributed to the illness itself—the rest were due to ordinary motives just like the rest of the population. But that’s not what most people believe. This is a part of the stigma that those of us with mental illness have to deal with, and the misinformation in movies isn’t helping.

Do movies make mental illness stigma worse?

Like I said, I have bipolar disorder, and, while the symptoms can be severe and difficult to deal with, the worst part of it is dealing with the stigma. Many people are scared by the illness, and I have to be very careful who I tell about my condition, particularly in the workplace. The widespread belief that people with bipolar disorder are unstable, unpredictable, and dangerous is a real danger to me socially and professionally. Those who know me would be the first to tell you that these perceptions are largely ungrounded. In fact, many people with mental illness go on to live fairly normal lives and do well in relationships and careers. But that’s not what we see in the movies, and it’s not what a lot of people believe.

Early on in cinema, mental illness became a plot device in horror movies, explaining the horrific behavior in villains without any real regard for realism or the people actually suffering from mental illness. The film that started this trend was probably the 1960 film Psycho, in which mental illness was the driving force of the killer. That was, admittedly, a pretty brilliant plot, but writers got lazier after that. In the 1978 film Halloween, Michael Myers goes on a killing spree after escaping from—you guessed it—a mental hospital. In the 1980 film The Shining, Jack Torrance slowly “goes crazy”—and that’s really the only explanation we get for it—and loses his grip on reality and becomes deranged killer. The crazy killer trope is used all over the place in horror films and some crime dramas. Does this make those movies bad? Well, not entirely—I actually rather enjoyed some of them—but it does make the stigma against mental illness worse.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is often held up as a shining star in tearing down the evil of the mental health industry, but the reality is that it does a lot more harm than good. There was another scientific study where they measured people’s opinions of people with mental illness before and after watching the film. It found that simply viewing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest significantly hurt the viewers’ image not only of the mental health industry, but also of people with mental illness. The participants were shown a documentary later to dispel some of the myths, but it didn’t undo the damage in perception caused by the film.

And we begin propagating that stigma very early in viewers’ lives. A study of Disney films showed that 85% of them contained passing references to mental illness. Now most of these were words like “crazy” or “nuts,” which were mainly used to describe the villains. So the villains weren’t “bad” or “evil”—they were “crazy,” because crazy makes people do bad things. Now, to be fair, I don’t think the writers ever intended to single out specific mental illnesses—like many other filmmakers, they’re just using “crazy” as a generic blanket term to explain evil. But regardless of the intent, the message is very clear: mental illness is a bad thing that causes bad things to happen.

And you’d think that the industry would have evolved and gotten better about this as the science progressed, but things have actually gotten worse. In 2000, Me, Myself, and Irene showed us a man with disassociative identity disorder whose condition led him to basically be an ass to everyone. The 2016 movie Split shows us another man with disassociative identity disorder whose multiple personalities kidnap and torture women. And it seems like every week on television, there’s a crime show that diagnoses a killer with borderline personality disorder to explain to the audience why he or she is so terrible. There was an analysis by a professor at the University of North Carolina – Asheville that found that characters identified as having a mental illness were 10 times more likely to commit violent crime than other characters. The real-life stats are that people with mental illness are as likely or less likely to commit violent crimes.

And when mental illness is not an explanation for terrible behavior, it’s often a joke. The television series Monk, which first aired in 2002, featured a main character with obsessive compulsive disorder, which mainly manifested in a series of cute, quirky little behaviors that were ultimately relatable to neurotypical viewers, leading many of them to think that they too are “a little OCD.” The reality is that OCD can be a debilitating condition that goes way beyond quirky and is certainly not cute.

And how many times have you heard people describe someone as “a little ADHD”? ADHD looks different than most people imagine it, and that’s largely due to the fact that it often shows up as a joke in film, if it shows up at all.

The trivialization of mental illness, while sometimes intended to make these conditions more normal to talk about, instead dismisses the real struggles associated with them. Remember that many mental disorders are legally classified as disabilities and can be just as debilitating as a physical disability. But struggle like that is not relatable to general audiences, so it rarely makes it onto the screen.

Now, the stigma is bad, but lousy portrayals in movies can do something even worse: they can make effective treatment undesirable.

Do movies make mental illness treatment undesirable?

As I mentioned earlier, I have to be careful who I share my disorder with, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely silent about it. In many areas of my life, I’m actually quite open about it. What has surprised me the most is that the people I tell usually feel bad for me not because I have this condition, but because I’m treating it. The stigma against treating mental illness is almost as bad as the stigma against mental illness itself; in the movies, the stigma against treating mental illness is significantly worse.

We’ve talked about lousy and harmful portrayals of mental illness in film, but let’s look at a film that got it right and see what it has to say about treatment.

In the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, brilliant mathematician John Nash suffers from schizophrenia. Hallucinations and paranoia cause major problems for him, so he goes on medication, but it makes him lethargic, so he stops. He learns to control his symptoms through sheer willpower alone.

So, even in films that show mental illness in a sympathetic light, treatment is off-limits. There are a few reasons for this—namely the simple idea that someone beating mental illness through their own strength makes a more relatable story than taking a pill for it. But this is where we really start to see the dark legacy of films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even though mental health treatment has come a long way since the 1950s, any doctor prescribing an effective medical treatment for a mental illness is often still seen as the evil Nurse Ratched, oppressing and controlling the patients in her care without regard for what it does to them.

In just about any movie where someone with mental illness gets better, this is what happens. Off the top of my head, there’s:

  • Garden State (2004)
  • Spider-Man 2 (2004) – Doc Ock has his moment of clarity and suddenly gets better
  • Patch Adams (1998) – the eponymous character refuses treatment in the beginning of the movie and does fine, despite nothing changing from the time that placed him in the mental hospital to begin with
  • The Apartment (1960) – and I love this film, but Frances just finds the right guy and she’s suddenly fine
  • Me, Myself, and Irene (2000, and can you tell I hated this movie?)

Now, are there any movies that prescribe effective medical treatment? There are a few. Let’s take a look at one: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).

In that film, Charlie, our protagonist, suffers from severe depression resulting from PTSD. As a freshman, there’s a group of eccentric seniors that take him under their wing and introduce him to their quirky culture. We also see throughout the film that Charlie’s parents still provide a lot of help, even completing some of his homework assignments for him. This is actually a pretty accurate depiction, and I love that about this film. In the end, Charlie has a major breakdown, and that drives him to get better treatment. It’s clear even in the end of the film that he will need to be taken care of for a while longer.

Now, for major depression, this is pretty realistic. It can be crippling (it is, after all, a legitimate disability) and there are no easy solutions. But compared to the other characters in the movies I mentioned before, Charlie seems like he’s made of glass and will shatter at the slightest touch. And even the decision to get treated is not his—it’s imposed on him in an emergency situation. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was a great film, but it illustrates why films don’t want characters that seek treatment: it’s seen as weak and only to be used as a last resort.

The impact of inaccurate portrayals of mental illness in film

With mental illness portrayed as negative, and effective treatment portrayed as more negative, where does that leave us? Without treatment, we’re seen as the villains: we’re crazy and dangerous. With treatment, we’re seen as the victims: we’re weak and deluded. This leaves no room for us to be the heroes of our own stories—or anyone else’s stories. After all, who would want a dangerous villain or a weak victim to help them with anything?

The stigma extends to all areas of social discussion. How many times have you heard a violent criminal or unstable politician described as “clearly mentally ill?” How many times have you heard that we don’t have a violence problem; we have a mental health problem? Just like in the movies, mental illness is a scapegoat for bad behavior, often perpetuated by people who don’t understand it.

This stigma isn’t solely because of the film industry, but film portrayals of mental illness certainly aren’t helping. Remember that study I mentioned earlier, where even viewing a documentary with the facts couldn’t undo the damage done by watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Until we start seeing more compassionate—and accurate—portrayals of mental illness in film, we’ll continue to see more damage than can’t be undone with exposure to the facts, and this will continue to hurt the many people who live with mental illness, including myself.

But there is a glimmer of hope. Thankfully, some films are becoming more sympathetic to those with mental illness. The 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook gave us a story of two mentally ill people that fell in love, and it’s amazing how normal these two characters and their relationship—and the treatment of their conditions—feel. The 2001 film A Beautiful Mind gave us a sympathetic, if not entirely accurate portrayal of a brilliant man with schizophrenia. The 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine gave us a portrayal of depression that captured the struggle without crippling the character, and he ends up being one of the most likable characters in the film. And the television show Homeland, which aired its first season in 2011, features a main character with bipolar disorder who is very good at her job. We are seeing progress in sympathetic portrayals of people with mental illness, even if portrayals of effective treatment are still lagging behind. Though things are far from perfect, I am still grateful for that progress and hope to see that trend continue in the future.

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