Author: Dario Malerba
Most of us are fairly ignorant when it comes to mental illness. While we may throw around terms like ‘OCD’, ‘PTSD’ and ‘psychopath’ on the daily, we know little of what they actually mean (Ewens 2016).
Mental health isn’t exactly considered news-worthy, nor do schools seem to cover it much in their curricula – despite mental health issues often starting during one’s teenage years (McLean 2019). Instead, for most people exposure to mental illness is dominated by popular myth and – unfortunately – the sensationalism of the film industry (Fawcett 2015).
This is not only a conceptual problem: Hollywood’s depiction of mental health is dangerous and has very real impacts on the lives of people living with mental disorders. The representation of mental health in films both reflects the beliefs of popular culture and at the same time reinforces them – and misguided beliefs cause problems.
Misconception 1: People with Mental Illnesses are Violent
By far the most common stereotype surrounding mental illness are that it causes violence. The role of the psychopath is everywhere in films. The antagonist is often shown to be evil, crazy or disturbed in some way: Villanelle from Killing Eve, Arthur Fleck in Joker, the many serial killers in Mindhunter – the list goes on.
Consider Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. He can be diagnosed as having an extreme form of antisocial personality disorder. He has a history of crime, is relentless, merciless; the manifestation of evil (Wedding and Niemiec 2014). Hitchcock’s Psycho also famously shows Norman Bates, a ‘psychopathic’ killer with dissociative identity disorder, who takes on the identity of his mother and blames his violence on her (Wedding and Niemiec 2014). By the end of the film, “[n]o longer Norman, no longer human, the final frames suggest he is simply insane. This dehumanizing image sums up efficiently the stereotype that occurred in many horror movies” (Zimmerman 2003).
Misconception 2: People with Mental Illness have no Control over Themselves
Hand in hand with the stereotype of violence, people with mental disorders are often seen as having no self-control, being impulsive and ignorant of their surroundings. These can be symptoms of mental illness, but are not always so (APA 2013). This stereotype turns people with mental illnesses into hopeless victims of their disorder, unable to make reasoned decisions.
Films emphasize this by portraying characters who have unrealistic self-images, are impulsive, or have built a whole different version of reality around them (Zimmerman 2003). A prime example of this is Leonardo Di Caprio’s role of Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island. Daniels believes he is an investigator discovering the dark secrets of the psychiatric institutions where we later discover he himself is a patient. Di Caprio’s character is revealed to be incredibly delusional and paranoid. He is unable to recognize his own mental issues and is completely detached from reality. In this way, the film repaints the stereotype that of people with mental health issues being incapable of understanding and recognizing their own situation.
Misconception 3: Mental Health Care does not work or is Dangerous
The first image of psychiatric care that comes to mind might be a dark and gloomy, secluded asylum; a white padded room and a safe-jacket; or a creepy, intrusive psychiatrist. These are all stereotypical images often seen in films.
A Clockwork Orange is a classic example. The main character Alex is a relentlessly violent type. He is treated for his ‘psychopathy’ by being injected with a chemical that causes him to get extremely sick, while being forced to watch videos of the crimes he is accused of such as rape and murder. After this ‘treatment’, he is not even able to think of violence without feeling sick (Wedding and Niemiec 2014). The 2019 film Joker also hints at similar stereotypes, with the psychologist treating Arthur Fleck depicted as useless and the institution as a whole portrayed as underfinanced and overly bureaucratic. Representations like these reinforce the idea that therapy is unethical, intrusive or even useless in the first place (Wedding and Niemiec 2014).
The Bottom Line
Thus, the next time you watch a film tagged “psychological”, please remember to watch with discretion. Of course, appreciate the artistry that goes into filmmaking, but do not allow something created for entertainment purposes to taint your perceptions of what mental health conditions affecting real people all over the world look like.
APA (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). American Psychiatric Pub.
Ewens, H. (2016). “Why we need to stop casually throwing around words like ‘Bipolar’ or ‘OCD’.” Vice. At https://www.vice.com/en/article/9bgjvz/language-of-catastrophe-why-we-need-to-stop-saying-were-mental.
Fawcett, K. (2015). “How Mental Illness is Misinterpreted in the Media.” U.S. News. At https://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2015/04/16/how-mental-illness-is-misrepresented-in-the-media.
McLean, J. (2019). “Why Mental Health Education in Schools is so Important?” The Doctor Weighs In. At https://thedoctorweighsin.com/mental-health-education-schools/.
Wedding, D. and R. M. Niemiec (2014). Movies and Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology. Hogrefe Publishing.
Zimmerman, J. N. (2003). People like ourselves: Portrayals of Mental Illness in the Movies. Vol. 3. Scarecrow Press.