Why Is Mental Illness Always Hard to Portray in Movies?

Ever since the dawn of cinema, directors and screenwriters have loved to dive into the issues pertaining to the human mind. After all, just like psychiatry, the field aims to explore the depths of human experience. Unfortunately, there are plenty of unsuccessful depictions out there that ended up doing more harm than good.

What could have been an opportunity to raise awareness didn’t do much else besides worsening the stigma surrounding mental illness and the people struggling it. So, why is providing the public with an appropriate image so difficult? To establish this, an exploration of the concept’s history is in order beforehand.

About Mental Illness on Film

Because psychiatry and cinema both came of age during the same period of time, the relationship between them is without a doubt a close one. Nevertheless, it’s not always smooth sailing with the two. In fact, an entire system of misconceptions regarding mental illness exists due to tropes perpetuated by the film industry.

To explore the situation more adequately, it’s important to go back to the start. The first notable portrayal of mental illness of film happened way back in 1920, thanks to the German Expressionist wave of cinema. The movie in question is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene.

Considered the first ever film with a plot twist, the ending reveals to the audience that Francis, the story’s narrator, was actually a patient in an insane asylum and we had been witnessing his deluded fantasy all along. What is more, we see that both Cesare and Jane were committed in the same ward. As for the infamous Dr. Caligari, he was actually the psychiatrist in charge.

German Expressionism has influenced Hollywood’s depiction of mental illness a great deal. What started in Dr. Caligari’s cabinet was continued by filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, and their themes are prevalent even today. Even though almost a full century has passed since we still think of the mentally ill as immoral killers hiding in the shadows.

In a way, the horror genre has created a legacy of darkness surrounding disorders of the mind, accentuating the stigma around them. Nevertheless, the theme of mental conditions has managed to extend far beyond this sphere. Although this is intrinsically a good thing because it offers new opportunities for representation, the outcome wasn’t always a beneficial one.

The fact that we seem to be split regarding opinions on the topic isn’t helping either. More recent movies such as The Fisher King, Benny and Joon, A Beautiful Mind, Silver Linings Playbook, and Girl, Interrupted have been simultaneously praised and criticized for their depictions of mental illness, which is confusing, to say the least.

While Metro’s top 13 boldly includes them among the best, Ranker is quick to dismiss these movies as being some of the most inaccurate and romanticized portrayals of serious mental illness to date. The same thing happened last year with Netflix’s breakout TV series 13 Reasons Why which was both acclaimed by some and shredded to pieces by others.

Why Inaccurate Portrayals Exist

When it comes to something as subjective as liking a movie or not, reviews will always be mixed. What sets the good apart from the bad is the existence of unanimity. But when it comes to portrayals of mental illness, that is rarely the case. But why does this happen? The short answer would be that human experience is different for everyone.

Due to this, two people suffering from the same symptoms of depression won’t necessarily have the same approach to life. Thus, what might seem like a sensible portrayal to one of them could very well be an utter disgrace to the other. At the surface level, this is true. But the discussion is a lot more nuanced than that.

The wider issue is that Hollywood products are based on a series of myths, and this covers the topic of mental illness as well. Perhaps the most relevant example at this point is described in an essay by Grand Valley State University honor student Lauren Beachum, and it is a trope known as the cathartic cure.

This relates to that moment in most films when a therapist or another third party discovers the underlying traumatic event behind a patient’s mental illness, and he or she is magically cured of that moment onward. In real life, things are rarely this easy. For this reason, most people who suffer from mental illness cannot relate to such depictions.

Another noteworthy point made by Beachum refers to the love cure. She describes it as that well-known film cliché of the lonely female therapist falling for the troubled male patient. They end up fixing each other’s lives and they live happily ever after.

This particular mechanism can be extended to any moment in a film depicting mental illness when a romantic relationship is presented as the turning point in the protagonist’s life when their mental illness disappeared into thin air because they found true love.

While it might seem endearing at first, these culturally ingrained concepts are frustrating for someone who has to live with the disorder for real. And these are just a few of the many examples of why inaccurate portrayals of mental illness exist.

Is There a Solution?

In the wake of the complex discussions that have emerged, the public is left wondering: is there a solution to all of this? Will Hollywood and the film industry, in general, be able to produce something that doesn’t mislead the general audience, and that patients can relate to? The answer is a clear ‘yes’. In fact, it has happened before.

The first example to come to mind is Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia. This particular depiction has succeeded where others have failed because it didn’t rely on shock value or romantic artifice to tell the story of a woman struggling with depression. It simply illustrated it, using raw emotion and a few metaphors here and there.

Although there would be much more to say in this respect, the most appropriate preliminary conclusion would be that, in order to do mental illness justice, films need to dial back on the horror or drama and just focus on actual experiences.

Final Thoughts

Living with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and so on is hard enough as it is. Patients don’t need a billion-dollar industry furthering their suffering, which is why everyone should do their best to raise awareness and dispel the misconceptions and stigma surrounding the concept.

Even though we’re not there yet, visible improvements are in motion. More and more people are educating themselves on the topic of mental illness, which is an essential step in changing the world and nurturing better attitudes on the topic.

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Alex Moore is a psychology blogger , movie buff and wellness enthusiast. He believes that all art has the power to change mindsets and better people. You’ll usually find him writing for www.schizlife.com.

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