Movies and Mental Illness

By Linley from (website coming soon)

Movies about mental illness have been produced for years, they used to frequently depict the inside of psychiatric hospitals, commenting on the ill treatment of mentally ill people whilst perpetrating stereotypes that circulate. The recent move has been towards showing mentally ill people living their lives (just like regular people) and sometimes undergoing treatment or therapy, aiming to show realistic portrayals.

There is obviously a lot of scepticism out there when these new movies are released. How are they going to handle the themes? Are they glamourising mental illness? Is it going to trigger sufferers or at-risk individuals into specific behaviours? Is it an accurate representation of the lived experience of millions of people?

Mental Illness is a delicate topic, but one that needs to be represented as being part of the human experience in order to increase awareness and decrease stigma. Post the psychiatric hospital setting, think: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) we moved onto Psychological Thrillers, set around extreme mental illness that distorts the individual’s reality: think Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Fight Club (1999), Memento (2000), The Machinist (2004) and Shutter Island (2010). These films use the illness as a tool for suspense and/or horror to leave the viewer guessing about what is real and what is not. They are easy to disassociate from and for the average viewer, it may be easy to see the character’s as ‘crazy’. They’re not… they’re unwell… but their illness is a plot device and frequently shown in the most extreme cases of schizophrenia, PTSD, dissociative identity disorder, anterograde amnesia, insomnia and bipolar disorder. The movies don’t focus predominately on living life, treatment or recovery; instead dramatising the lengths these illnesses can take a person.

The plethora of more recent mental-illness themed dramas are directly targeted at a Young Adult audience and deal with young adult aged characters, navigating typical situations and feelings; friendship, family, love, school etc, with mental illness. This article won’t be discussing to what extent these films do their job, instead I’d like to talk about how we critique the characters. Discussion on whether they are depicting the truth is widespread. Is the character too happy or too normal? Do they have too many healthy relationships? Are they balancing too many things in life? Why are they getting romantically involved when they’re sick? Are they too highly-functioning? All questions, substituted with more specific examples, I have seen or heard asked in response to these films.

The issue with these questions is, although well intended, further stigmatise and stereotype these mental illnesses. I’ve see a plethora of online comments saying, “I suffer with anxiety and I would never do X, Y or Z” and I think the acknowledgement that each illness affects everyone differently is important. If the point of releasing these films is to discuss the different ways people with mental illness live, then how far can we go when critiquing whether the character is behaving in the “right” way?

Not to say we should not be critical of glamourised portrayals or factually incorrect representations of symptoms, treatment and recovery that further the unlikelihood of building understanding because we know they’re damaging. But any decent filmmaker and actor will do their research, obviously, and the prevalence of mental illness says if they’ve never suffered, than someone close to them has so it would be damaging to suggest the actions or behaviours of a character are not within the realm of possibility of that mental illness. The truth is, there’s a lot of highly functioning people out there who you meet every day and don’t realise they suffer from anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, OCD or any other number of mental illnesses. To say these characters are not crazy, dissociative, sad, manic, reserved or inactive enough, is to say that only the most extreme depictions of mental illness within a psychiatric ward are the ones that are believable.

At least they’re starting a conversation, and I think that’s a hugely positive step. Let’s show some more high-functioning mental illness in modern media and damn it, give some content warnings before and tell us where to get help afterwards!

Find out more about Linley in our Featured Writers section and see links to her sites & socials.

Any information on this blog is not a substitute for professional advice. It is written from personal experience and research only. If you are in crisis, go to your nearest emergency room, call lifeline on 13 11 14 or dial 000. If you live outside Australia, link to worldwide crisis numbers can be found in the sidebar.