If you’re asked to name a movie character with a mental illness, what example pops into your mind?
Whoever you pick, chances are the character isn’t portrayed in a favorable light. Instances of the mentally ill in the movies usually fall into two categories. On one hand, you have the likes of Norman Bates in “Psycho,” Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of The Lambs,” and Freddy Krueger in “The Nightmare on Elm Street”. These characters depict people with mental illness as violent, disturbed and psychopathic killers. This is despite the fact that most mentally ill people are not violent. (A point that was recently reiterated by a Vanderbilt Study on the subject.) On the other hand, you have characters like Bob Wiley in “What About Bob”, Charlie Bailygates in “Me, Myself and Irene” and Bobby in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” These characters are of the kooky, manic and fun-loving variety, which make mental illness seem entertaining and endearing even.
Of course, there are outliers that portray mental illness in a more believable and reasonable manner. Jennifer Lawrence’s depressed character, Tiffany, in “Silver Linings Playbook” comes to mind. Gary Sinese’s depiction of PTSD with his Lieutenant Dan character in “Forrest Gump” and Guy Pearce’s portrayal of a man suffering from anterograde amnesia in 2000’s “Memento” are other good examples. Unfortunately, these legitimate instances in the media seem few and far between.
The movie industry focuses on these one-dimensional stereotypes, and that can lead viewers to consider the mentally ill as either unpredictable and dangerous, or wildly irrational and childlike. In “Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness,” Dr. Otto Wahl describes and discusses ways that mass media present mental illnesses. Wahl, "Overall, the mass media do a poor job of depicting mental illness, with misinformation frequently communicated, unfavorable stereotypes of people with mental illnesses predominating, and psychiatric terms used in inaccurate and offensive ways.”
While these depictions may be entertaining us at the theater, at what expense are we consuming them? Wahl says, “Children are significant consumers of mass media, and they may be learning about mental illnesses from their exposure to media depictions of those illnesses.” One in five children experience mental illness, and it’s frightening to think that those same children could be internalizing about what they see and hear about mental illness at the movies and on TV.
It’s clear that there is a need for a new approach that takes a real look at mental illness and provides content in an entertaining, inspiring and stigma-free fashion. Fortunately, there are people and entities in the industry that are part of the movement toward better filmmaking and programing. The Mental Health Channel is a free online TV channel whose mission is to “create engaging, enlightening, informative programming, commercial free, to help all viewers improve their mental health.” Currently, there are 12 original documentary series and 92 episodes to keep you informed and entertained. Mental Health Channel’s Creative Director, Scott Rice, says, “The channel’s audience is really everybody. Everybody has been touched by mental health issues.”
“Hidden Pictures” is a breakthrough documentary that takes a look at intimate snapshots of real mental illness all around the world and culminates in “an exciting exploration of how people around the world are leading transformational programs to improve the mental health landscape.” But the positive portrayals aren’t only associated with documentary-style content.
While Lifetime isn’t usually known for its quality filmmaking, its recent “Call Me Crazy” challenges old stereotypes of the network. “Call Me Crazy” depicts five shorts that are named after each title character and shows “powerful relationships that are built on hope and triumph, and raise a new understanding of what happens when a loved one struggles with mental illness.”
While the movies coming soon to a theater near you may continue to portray stereotypes, remember there are new and exciting alternatives out there that are changing the conversation around mental health.