Do the films we watch and the media we consume shape the way we see people who experience mental ill health? Can film or media add to stigma surrounding mental ill health or help to address it?
Studies which seek to answer these questions suggest that film and media have both a negative and positive effect. These perceptions may also reinforce widely perceived myths about mental health which are worth challenging.
The myth of mental health & violence
A common misconception is that people experiencing mental illness are violent. Films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and the raft of horror movies they have inspired have depicted people with mental ill health as violent and dangerous. Serial killer depictions in films like Silence of The Lambs (1991) further present an association between mental ill health and psychopathic personalities and criminality.
Halloween costumes inspired by these kinds of films include uniforms and masks with psychiatric hospital labels and violent associations. Successful campaigns have challenged supermarkets where, until recently, these costumes were often to be found on sale in the run up to Halloween.
Fatal Attraction (1987) is another film which has spawned imitators, and portrays a woman with borderline personality disorder who becomes obsessional, turning to violence and kidnapping a man’s daughter, when he refuses to continue their affair.
The film’s star, Glenn Close, who is an advocate for mental health has since voiced her concerns that her attempts to accurately portray borderline personality in the film were minimised. Instead the film presented mental health issues in a more sensationalist light.
The derogatory term ‘bunny boiler’ is taken from a scene in the film, and promotes the stereotype that women with borderline personality disorder diagnosed, are prone to hysterical outbursts and are abusive towards their partners. Borderline personality disorder is a complex condition, and while sufferers do experience mood swings and consequent difficulties with relationships and employment, this does not mean that they are more violent towards their partners.
Sensationalist newspaper headlines which seek to grab our attention by using words like ‘psycho’, ‘deranged’ or ‘mental’ also reinforce the perception that people with mental ill health are violent. In fact, statistics show that people experiencing mental ill health are no more likely than members of the general public to be physically violent.
Steps in the right direction?
There is evidence to suggest that things are improving, although more still needs to be done. An ongoing study carried out in collaboration between the mental health charity Mind and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, published findings last year on media reporting of mental health issues.
The study showed that for the first time since it began in 2008, fifty percent of articles reporting on mental health challenged stigma, while thirty-five percent still presented accounts which were stigmatising. Unfortunately, there continues to be an association between violence and mental illness, and conditions like schizophrenia still carry a stigma.
What about representation in film and television? A Beautiful Mind (2001) is a biopic of Professor John Nash, a Nobel laureate who suffered with paranoid schizophrenia and the TV series Homeland featured a lead character who seeks to balance her professional role with bipolar disorder. Both of these portrayals portrayed people who experience mental ill health as high functioning, and Homeland in particular showed the day-to-day challenges of making responsible decisions while struggling to manage strong emotions, feelings and thoughts.
The increasing number of articles reporting on mental health and public figures speaking about their experiences certainly help to raise the profile and importance of addressing mental ill health, as well as the stigma which prevents people from seeking help. Realistic portrayals of mental ill health in film, television and media also have an important role to play in helping that public discussion as it moves forward.