We go to the movies to find entertainment but also for education. We can learn a lot about mental illness in the movies. Over the years, people with mental illness have been portrayed in a distorted way. There have been depictions of patients in what were labeled “mental institutions” who were babbling to themselves incoherently.
Viewers seeing this may have assumed that this is the way that all mentally ill people behave when this isn’t the case. It’s a stereotype that isn’t representative of the entire community and it promotes stigma. Sure, there are people who experience psychosis and go into catatonic states, but that isn’t everyone. One example of this depiction of mental illness is in the film One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest starring Jack Nicholson.
That movie has a lot of problematic scenes that perpetuate stigma. The primary reason that Nicholson’s character enters the institution is to avoid going to prison. He is actually faking having a mental illness. This is offensive because the subtext is that it is easy to pretend that you are mentally ill.
In reality it isn’t easy to “fake” a mental illness. And people who actually live with mental illness will attest to this, particularly if you live with psychosis. When you have manic episodes or you’re hallucinating, those are things that are difficult to pretend to be experiencing. In this way the idea that Nicholson’s character is able to fake being ill is a disservice to the mental health community.
There have been a variety of ways that a therapist is depicted in the movies. One of the funniest and most accurate representation of a therapist is Richard Dreyfuss in What About Bob.
He plays a type A personality who takes on a complicated patient who has severe anxiety, OCD and agoraphobia. Dreyfuss is much like a therapist many of us have seen in “real life.”
He is dedicated to professional boundaries and is determined to communicate to Bob (Bill Murray) who is his patient that he is on vacation and can’t provide him with care. Unfortunately, Bob doesn’t get the hint and follows Dreyfuss all the way up to his country home in New England. This movie has a playful tone but shows us what a therapist looks like in an realistic way.
There have been improvements to the way that mental illness is shown in the movies. For example, the film A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe features a graduate who is suffering from Paranoid Schizophrenia.
Critics and movie viewers said that the film was an accurate portrayal by Crowe of someone with this illness. The way that the character develops schizophrenia over time was accurate. This is a vast improvement in the way that characters with mental illness have been seen in films in the 60’s and 70’s. Crowe shows that his character is experiencing delusions and psychosis but he is also struggling to function in an academic environment.
Eventually, he realizes that he has to get help. The film is ultimately tragic and uplifting and a realistic depiction of what a person goes through who has paranoid schizophrenia.
There have been recent films that aren’t as progressive as A Beautiful Mind. The M. Night Shyamalan film Split depicts a character that has 23 different personalities. People who have DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) from the mental health community spoke out about how this was an inaccurate and stigmatizing portrayal of someone who has DID or formerly Multiple Personality Disorder.
The film makes the viewer think that people with DID are serial killers and dangerous people. This isn’t the case and there are many people with this illness who are kind and functioning members of society. This film (like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) serves to further stigmatize people with mental illness.
We as a society have an obligation to continue to fight against the stigma of mental illness. It’s important to continue to speak about mental illness and show people living with it in films.
The key to making a compelling film about a character with mental illness is to research the illness itself. Speak to people with the illness, interview them and get their perspective. Then the film is more likely to be a success.
About the author
Sarah Fader is the CEO and Founder of Stigma Fighters, a non-profit organization that encourages individuals with mental illness to share their personal stories. She has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Quartz, Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, HuffPost Live, and Good Day New York.
Sarah is a native New Yorker who enjoys naps, talking to strangers, and caring for her two small humans and two average-sized cats. Like six million other Americans, Sarah lives with panic disorder. Through Stigma Fighters, Sarah hopes to change the world, one mental health stigma at a time.