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Mental illness in film: The importance of realistic portrayals

Posted on 09-25-15 in Mental Health

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In classic Hollywood films, people with mental illness are all too frequently portrayed as inhuman monsters. Villains are often “psychopaths,” or people suffering from a nonspecific mixture of mental disorders that only serve to make them violent and unpredictable. Or protagonists with mental illness are locked away in asylums and become tragic figures.

These days, writers do a much better job of portraying people with mental illness for what they are: ordinary individuals with families, jobs and lives.

The power of media

Why do movies need to reflect real life? When people enter the theater, they’re usually prepared to suspend their disbelief, so it makes sense that mental illness in movies isn’t necessarily true to life.

Films have a very powerful effect on how individuals view people with mental illness. Movies can reach millions of people who will never read a psychology textbook or will never experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Realistic portrayals of people with mental health disorders, therefore, promote understanding for the many individuals who deal with these disorders.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in 5 adults will experience mental illness in any given year, and 1 in every 20 adults will experience a serious mental condition such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. These individuals are not violent – in fact, people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Often, people with mental illness will be afraid to seek treatment, convinced that their disorder is incurable or that they’re destined to become the monsters portrayed in old films.

By portraying people with mental illness realistically, Hollywood can help mitigate the stigma associated with it, making it easier for people to seek treatment and discuss their troubles with family and friends.

Movies with accurate portrayals

Recently released movies have more realistically portrayed mental illness. Here are only a few examples:

Welcome to Me:Welcome to Me” stars Kristen Wiig as a woman suffering from borderline personality disorder. When she wins the lottery, she stops taking her psychiatric medication and starts her own talk show. “Welcome to Me” portrays the struggles and thought-processes associated with borderline personality disorder.

The End of the Tour: “The End of the Tour” stars Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone reporter, and Jason Segel as the acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace. Jason Segel portrays the depressed novelist.

Infinitely Polar Bear: “Infinitely Polar Bear” stars Mark Ruffalo as a man suffering from bipolar disorder who tries to win back his wife by taking full responsibility for their two children. The film is largely an autobiographical look at the director’s father, making this portrayal of bipolar disorder very true to life.

Hollywood has come a long way since its initial presentations of mental illness as fantastical ailments or excuses for villainy. Each year, more and more movies are released that illuminate the true struggles associated with mental illness and reduce the stigma ticket by ticket.

Sovereign Health Group is a leading residential treatment facility that treats substance addiction and mental illness. Patients have access to individual and group therapies as well as classes on yoga, meditation and healthy living. Our employees pride themselves on following “the Sovereign way,” a treatment technique in which we focus on the complex interplay between drugs, mental health and the environment. For more information, please contact 888-530-4614.

Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer