Inaccurate Portrayal of Mental Illness in Media and Stigma
Take a moment to think of your favorite media villain. I bet the character that just came to mind is portrayed as having a mental illness with a sprinkle, or more like a heap of dramatization for theatrical effect. Batman's Two-Face struggles deeply from poorly represented dissociative identity disorder (DID), as does Split's protagonist with the 23rd identity of Kevin being The Beast, an entirely fictitious representation that--intentionally or not--paints individuals suffering from DID as violent and inhuman.1 The cinematic tactic aimed at creating drama and bolstering a storyline comes with an unintended and paramount side effect: stigma.
Fabricating Mental Health in Media Leads to More Widespread Stigma
On one side, it can be argued that these villains embody an increased representation of mental illness in media. However, through further analysis, it is clear that these representations are not only skewed but, in some cases, inaccurate.
One common theme of mental health in media is equating illness with violence. Two films that come to mind are Shutter Island and A Beautiful Mind, both of which centered around protagonists with schizophrenia. Are you ready to be shocked? There are nine instances of violence with others and four self-inflicted in Shutter Island. Equally concerning, A Beautiful Mind has four instances of violence with others and four self-inflicted.2 Although episodes of schizophrenia can be associated with violence or aggressive behavior, it is irresponsible and misrepresentative to paint this picture. This is especially true since individuals with schizophrenia are no more violent or dangerous than the rest of the population if receiving adequate treatment and not misusing alcohol or drugs.3 Why, then, don't more films properly illustrate this?
Modern Media Inches Towards a More Accurate Mental Health Portrayal
The good thing is that not all media portrayal of mental illness gets it wrong. Take Silver Linings Playbook star, Bradley Cooper, for example; his character suffers from bipolar disorder. Instead of wrongly imprisoning him after a manic episode leaves someone close to death, he checks into a psychiatric facility with the proper resources to treat his disorder. The most impactful takeaway from this movie is not a surprisingly fair justice system but the fact that we, as the viewer, never lose sight of his gentle and kind soul that shines through brightly despite the mania he battles.4 Although subtle and often missed, these nuances of mental health are what need more representation in media.
Although Silver Linings PlayBook gets an A+ for accuracy, my favorite portrayal of mental illness in media comes from a rather unexpected place. Disney's Inside Out displays the nuances of mental health, making them digestible and informative for all ages. This is especially important because, as we know, it's not just adults who can struggle with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issue. The movie's premise is an inside look at a little girl's emotions fighting to take precedence in her person. The prominent feeling until a significant life change is Joy; however, when uncertainty and unfamiliarity come into play, Sadness reigns. These emotions in the little girl's head are personified by fun, playful, child-like characters. All ages can relate to feeling these emotions, and all ages can find solace in knowing that everyone deals with them. A mix of animation, depth, and life lessons, Inside Out is a cinematic treasure if you ask me.
As evident by the examples above and many other forms of media, mental illness is beginning to have a long-awaited and accurate representation in media. As an avid movie watcher and TV enthusiast, I'm excited to see what more can be done to eradicate mental health stigma through media.
- Pierce-Bohen, K. (2022, February 3). 20 Most Inaccurate Movie Character Portrayals Of Mental Illness. Screen Rant. https://screenrant.com/movie-character-inaccurate-mental-illness-portrayals/
Boyles MSN, BSN, RN, O. (2018, April 11). Ways Mental Illness Is Commonly Misrepresented in the Media. ICANotes Behavioral Health EHR. https://www.icanotes.com/2018/04/11/ways-mental-illness-is-commonly-misrepresented-in-the-media/
Better Health. (2019, November 10). Mental Illness and Violence - Better Health Channel. Better Health Channel. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/mental-illness-and-violence
- Pierce-Bohen, K. (2021, January 17). 20 Movie Characters Who Accurately Portray Mental Illness. Screen Rant. https://screenrant.com/movie-characters-accurately-portray-mental-illness/
Jack, J. (2022, August 18). Inaccurate Portrayal of Mental Illness in Media and Stigma, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, September 21 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivingmentalhealthstigma/2022/8/inaccurate-portrayal-of-mental-illness-in-media-and-stigma