The image of mental illness in mainstream cinema

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Morris, Rebecca
Issue Date
BA (Hons) in Film, Literature and Drama
Dublin Business School
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Mass media can be seen to bear an enormous responsibility for the presentation of negative stereotypes which continually affect those who struggle with mental illness. These negative stereotypes can profoundly stigmatise those suffering with psychiatric conditions by exhibiting inaccurate and misinformed portrayals of mental illness and how it is medically treated. As a consequence of poor research, the media has often presented incorrect and sometimes deeply offensive images of mental health disorders. Mass media, in particular film, can contribute to and even intensify the societal stigma already aligned with illnesses of the mind. Consequently, the seriousness of such conditions is not taken into account and an unsympathetic perspective towards mental illness is encouraged. Characters with mental illness are often perceived as dangerous, deviant characters or alternately represented in a comical manner. Poor understanding of medical conditions often lead to an incorrect depiction of a mental health condition. For example, Schizophrenia is frequently misrepresented as multiple personality disorder; the disease is commonly portrayed in film inaccurately and therefore identifiable to audiences as a split personality disorder. Films such as Me, Myself and Irene (2000) show that the understanding of Schizophrenia has showed no improvement as time has passed. The portrayal of how mental illness is medically treated by professionals in film is also an issue that raises some concern. The use of medication as a form of chemical restraint and the abuse of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) as a form of patient management, along with authoritative medical practitioners provides a terrifying insight into Hollywood’s idea of the treatment of psychiatric conditions. It is possible to assume that such frightening images may discourage people who actually suffer with various mental illnesses to actively seek treatment, as “patients themselves are likely to be part of the psychiatrically misinformed and inexperienced general public” (Wahl, 1995). It is difficult to understand how little progress there has been in the area of mental illness in film. Negative, prejudicial images continue to grace cinema screens. There are a number of factors which may encourage this: for example, the commercial nature of film, being that it is driven by the demand of viewers; film-makers etc. remain ill-informed as do their audience; the historical popularity of the ‘mad man’ in art, literature, TV and film and the attempts to differentiate ‘them’ from ‘us’ through abnormal appearances and behaviour. Another factor that may be slowly starting to change is the lack of response from the people who are affected by these images of mental illness, including sufferers and non-sufferers.