Movies and television shows, as well as other forms of entertainment, have the ability to shape how we see the world. However, the portrayal of mental illness in the media is not often one that is portrayed accurately and studies show that they negatively influence public perception while sustaining the stigma.
For instance, in the 1990’s, political actions focused on deinstitutionalization and community healthcare. The entertainment industry responded by portraying those with mental health illnesses or disorders committing homicide at an alarming rate (one which is not supported by data). Despite previously supporting community healthcare and deinstitutionalization, society reacted to these storylines by championing policies that “prevented” such violence.
This sensationalism by the entertainment industry and the media impeded public policy and health care and reinforced negative stigmas held by society at large.
Stigmatization of Mental Health in Media
There are two common types of stigmas – social and self.
- Social stigma is the disapproval or discrimination against a person based on their characteristics – such as culture, gender, race, age, intelligence, and health.
- Self stigma is the process by which those with a mental health disorder perceive public stigma, internalize it, and then apply it to themselves.
There are several ways in which the entertainment industry, and subsequently society as a whole, perpetuate negative stereotypes. For example, when a show trivializes the nature of serious disorder – like postpartum depression – by waving it off and telling the character to “get over it” or “snap out of it”. This has a trickle-down effect as society begins to mimic what they see on screen. These types of portrayals of mental illness could have long reaching affects.
Unfortunately, the media’s main job is to entertain. If their movie is a box office smash or their show receives consistently excellent ratings, then that show is considered successful.
Portrayal of Mental Illness in Media
There are countless depictions of mental health illness and disorders and addictions in the media. Unfortunately, the bad outweigh the good. When perusing this list, it’s important to remember that these examples – especially those that are considered positive depictions – are by no means perfect or ideal representations of disorders. If you find yourself choosing to watch a movie or show from this list, please do additional research to avoid triggers.
Inaccurate Depictions in Movies
The main goal of movies is to be entertaining. However, many movies depict mental illness in a negative way.
Silver Linings Playbook
This movie received Golden Globe nominations for best picture, best screenplay, and best actor (Cooper) and actress (Jennifer Lawrence). Though it is a feel-good movie (and doesn’t sugarcoat how mental illness affects families), the ultimate message is that intimate relationships can help heal mental illness. Steven Scholzman, MD from the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said that “falling in love is an absolutely awesome, wonderful thing but it’s not going to cure bipolar disorder any more than it is going to cure diabetes.”
A man with dissociative identity disorder (previously referred to as multiple personality disorder) becomes a violent kidnapper. Dissociative identity disorder forms when someone is trying to escape their reality, often because of a traumatic experience or situation. They “shift” between these identities – each may have their own names, characteristics, and voice. When this shift occurs, there are often memory gaps.
A study done by the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) found that, of the 173 people with dissociative identity disorder, only 3% were charged with an offense, less than 2% had been fined, and less than 1% were jailed over a time period of 6 months. In fact, people living with DID are more likely to hurt themselves than to hurt others.
ISSTD issued this statement regarding Split:
“With respect to Mr. Shyamalan’s ability to write and direct truly frightening movies, depicting individuals with this, or any other mental health disorders, does a disservice to his artistic ability and to the over 20 percent of the population who, at some time or another, struggle with some form of mental illness. It acts to further marginalize those who already struggle on a daily basis with the weight of stigma.”
Inaccurate Depictions in Television
There are television shows that also portray mental illness in a negative way. Television shows can affect you more because mental illness is depicted throughout a series of episodes. This can cause your stigma of mental illness to grow over an extended amount of time.
In this Netflix series, Debby Ryan plays Patty, a teenager who has been ruthlessly bullied for being fat. While it’s never stated in the movie, it is implied that Patty has been living with a binge-eating disorder. However, after being punched in the jaw, Patty must live on a liquid diet for three months which results in tremendous weight loss. Throughout the series, there is emphasis on Patty’s physical appearance and changes, using a beauty pageant to showcase them. The implication is that simply losing weight through food restriction is enough to cure an eating disorder. In real life, binge-eating is extremely complex and is often brought on by an intermingling of biological, social, and psychological factors. Simply put, someone with an eating disorder cannot simply be cured by not being allowed to eat. Treatment for eating disorders is ongoing and often involves treatment modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy. This is a problematic portrayal of mental illness in this series.
13 Reasons Why
Another Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why is based on a book of the same name and is about a high school student named Hannah Baker. Baker makes 13 cassette tapes for the 13 people she feels are responsible for her death by suicide. There are several issues with this show in regards to how it portrays suicidal ideation as well as not addressing suicide prevention.
- The focus is on bullying, of which Hannah is a victim. However, no single thing leads to suicide – instead, this decision is often a result of a myriad of experiences and lack of support.
- While there isn’t always one thing you can do to prevent a suicide death, there are ways to provide support to people at risk. However, 13 Reasons Why absolves themselves of this responsibility in the telling of Hannah’s story. The audience is simply not shown examples of what they should do if someone in their life is in crisis.
- Those who struggle with suicidal thoughts often consider suicide for a long period of time. However, it’s especially unrealistic to think that a teenager (who is in the middle of an emotional crisis) would take the time to create and deliver a series of elaborate tapes for all of her enemies.
- Lastly, the show does not talk about mental illness or depression at all. Instead, 13 Reasons Why presents suicide as the only solution for Hannah. The much more common story is that those living with suicidal thoughts learn to survive, with the help and support from people in their lives.
Accurate Depictions in Movies
Not all portrayals of mental illness in movies are completely inaccurate. Some movies are able to depict mental illness in a positive light. The following is a list of movies that have a positive depiction of mental illness.
The story of Nathaniel Ayers, a gifted musician whose mental health illness or disorder drove him out of Juilliard School. Ayers eventually ended up on the streets of Los Angeles, playing a violin with just two strings. Ayers captured the attention of Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist. Lopez began writing columns about Ayers, which turned into a book and then a movie.
Lopez explained that in humanizing Ayers, he hoped it would be a step towards de-stigmatizing mental illness. Additionally, the film addresses the link between mental illness and homelessness. As a whole, society has given up on one of our most vulnerable populations – inaccurately assuming that nothing can be done to address their issues.
An adaptation of the book by Sylvia Nasar that is based on the experiences of John Nash Jr., a Nobel Laureate and mathematician while living with paranoid schizophrenia. While the film inaccurately portrayed Nash’s personal struggle with schizophrenia, Nash’s character exhibited accurate symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.
Accurate Portrayal of Mental Illness in Television
Like movies, there are some television shows that show a positive portrayal of mental illness. The following is a list of some of the shows that depict mental illness accurately.
This BBC drama series feels like a digging into someone’s diary, offering a more realistic depiction of how an illness (in this case, anorexia) can set in. Made up of eight 10-minute episodes that tell the story of Imogene and her spiral into anorexia.
Eva O’Connor, a playwright, wrote Overshadowed for the stage before Kay Mellor picked it up for television. O’Connor herself has struggled with an eating disorder. It was particularly important to the creators to ensure that Overshadowed did not fall victim to tropes the way other dramas about eating disorders have.
“What I wanted to make clear is that anorexia is a mental illness and it’s relentless. It’s with you every minute of the day,” she says. “When somebody has an eating disorder they can be really difficult to live with. They can be cruel and reckless and self-destructive.
“One of the things I wanted to say with Overshadowed is that it’s not the person that’s like that, it’s the thing living inside them. On my first day in therapy my therapist said, ‘imagine it like a creepy demon living in your biscuit cupboard’. That’s how the character was born.”
In this series, anorexia is not glamorized. The creators went out of their way to ensure they didn’t mention weight, calorie-counting, or having the actress actually lose weight for the role.
What Can You Do?
As consumers, there is very little we can do to encourage filmmakers and television producers to create more accurate and empathetic content around mental health. Accurate portrayal of mental illness does not always make the most entertaining products. However, there are changes that we can make in our everyday lives that can help shift the public narrative which could, in turn, shift the way the media – movies, television, and even the news – portrays people who struggle with these disorders.
- Use Person-Centered Language: Instead of using a mental illness or disorder as a defining characteristic, shift your language to be person-centered. Instead of referring to a person as an addict or a schizophrenic, use language like “a person living with addiction/schizophrenia”.
- Do not use Derogatory Language such as crazy, insane, deranged, etc.
- If comfortable doing so, initiate a conversation with those around you who continue to use such language. Oftentimes, people don’t realize that stigmatizing language creates a barrier for those who are living with mental illness. This stigmatization of disorders often results in a delay or avoidance of treatment by those who are living with them.
- Discuss Subject Matter: This is particularly important if you have children in your household. When watching questionable material, offer immediate advice, ask questions, and leave some time for healthy reflection of the material. By opening up this channel of communication with your child, or other household members, you can help equip them with the tools – such as empathy and knowledge – to help them navigate material that may otherwise encourage negative stereotypes.