The Portrayal of Mental Illness in Media
[There will be spoilers for various films in this article]
I remember when I watched Split (2016) for the first time. I am a fan of psychological thrillers and horror, so I really enjoyed it. James McAvoy’s acting was phenomenal; he delivered an engaging and remarkable performance. And what a terrifying concept; a person with multiple personalities, some young, some old, some that want to kidnap teenage girls. Imagine if there were real people like that character? The thing is, there are people in the real world with multiple personalities. They suffer from Dissociative identity disorder (DID).
But this portrayal is not quite accurate. Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a real disease that most often develops when a person experiences severe abuse as a child. When faced with an incredibly traumatic situation, a DID person’s mind “splits” into two or more distinct personalities. This is a neurological defense response that protects the original personality. So, the personalities one may develop due to DID are not likely to want to kidnap teenage girls. It is highly unlikely that a personality meant to protect you would purposefully cause you more trauma.
Imagine having DID and watching Split for the first time. It would be horrible to see something that is a part of you displayed in such a way. Imagine how someone whose only exposure to the disorder and knows nothing about DID would react while watching Split. This creates a stigma around DID, spreads misinformation, and is likely damaging those who have it.
About one in five adults in the United States live with mental illness. One would think that, because mental illness is incredibly commonplace, media portrayals of mental illness would not sustain or propagate negative stereotypes or stigma. And yet, this continues to be a problem to this very day.
The Joker (2019), One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Fatal Attraction (1987), and Psycho(1960) are all critically acclaimed movies that include inaccurate depictions of mental health. These movies are all well known and beloved by many. Yet, they continue to spread misinformation to the masses. It could be said that fiction does not need to be accurate. And this is true. However, stating that a character has a mental illness and then portraying them in a negative, and incorrect, light is damaging to people who actually live with that illness.
Everyone learns something from the content they consume. The information we are exposed to embeds itself in our minds. So, for many people, if the only time they hear mental illness spoken about is in movies and television shows, they would have no reason to believe the portrayal is not accurate. This perpetuates the stigma of mental illness and leads to many not seeking help when they need it.
To be fair, mental illness is displayed accurately in some movies. Black Swan (2010). A Beautiful Mind (2001), and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), are examples of films where the depiction of mental illness is much more true to life than most others. The problem is that the average person has no way of knowing which representations are true and which are false.
Mental health organizations need to work toward solving this problem by making everyday mental illnesses like anxiety and depression acceptable to talk about. Too many will continue to suffer in silence until mental health is no longer considered a taboo topic of conversation. Worse, people who are fed misinformation without background knowledge may discriminate against those who they believe fit a stereotype.
We must raise the level of conversation about mental health. And, we must advocate for filmmakers to do proper research. Mental illness is not just something to be used to explain why a character is a villain.