In recent years, mental illness has become a popular topic of conversation among the British public with influences from numerous campaigns, celebrities speaking out and positive social media posts.
One would consider this to be a positive step in the right direction, however, the question remains as to how much the average person really knows about mental illness? With no obligatory education on the subject in the UK, most people ‘learn’ from the media. But can the media be trusted and do they depict mental illness accurately? Many would argue that they don’t …
Newspapers are often criticised for using techniques such as scaremongering, sensationalism and quoting out of context in order to produce an entertaining article for readers in the hope that it will increase audience size and in turn increase profits.
For example, in 1996 a British tabloid was found to have manipulated an image of serial killer, Martin Bryant to make him appear ‘mad’ while reporting on his court case. Emotive and judgemental language was also used (‘I’m guilty… ha ha ha’, ‘a psycho who never stopped smiling’) so as to evoke a particular response in the reader.
The good news is that nowadays the public seem to be aware of these tactics. Indeed, a common phrase often heard is ‘don’t believe everything you read in the paper!’ But what about other sources? What about television and film? It’s increasingly common now for a main character to have a mental health problem but how accurate is the depiction?
Psychologist Otto Wahl found that over 150 films released between 1985 and 1995 contained either a main character with a mental health problem or a title containing a suggestion of mental illness. However, one particular film released in 1960 was one of the first to feature mental health issues at the forefront of its narrative — Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
In keeping with Wahl’s findings, the title ‘Psycho’ immediately provokes an emotional reaction of fear and danger and perpetuates a definite idea of the word psychopath (psychopaths are largely believed by the general public to be violent, ruthless killers who cannot feel emotion).
Or could the title refer to psychosis? A symptom which can result in hallucinations, auditory hallucinations and delusions … it’s a better fit …
Bates is diagnosed with something closer to dissociative personality disorder at the end of the film which can see the sufferer present multiple personalities. Thus, either the title is a reflection of an ill-informed production team or the makers wished to imply that people who suffer from mental illness are dangerous.
Another, more recent film that focuses on a similar theme is Split featuring James McAvoy as the lead character.
This character appears to have multiple personalities one of which is extremely sadistic and violent and kidnaps three teenage girls whom he keeps locked in a cell. He frequently alternates between personalities before eventually morphing into a ‘beast’ that can climb walls and possesses a thirst for blood.
Again, the title of the film carries connotations of mental illness by referring to the outdated term, ‘split personality disorder’ (now known as dissociative identity disorder) and follows the predictable pattern of portraying mental illness as dangerous and violent.
The same can be said for Freddy Krueger 3 which tells the story of his mother who was accidentally locked in a room with hundreds of mentally ill patients, subsequently suffering unceasing gang rape by them.
Psychiatric hospitals are often portrayed in television and film as dangerous places: American Horror Story, Stonehurst Asylum, The Mansion of Madness, Madhouse, Dark Asylum, Doom Asylum, The Ward … All of these titles come under the genre of thriller or horror with violent behaviour being a common recurring theme.
In 2012 researchers found that in episodes of daytime soap operas that featured a character with mental health issues, 83 per cent had the character committing a violent act while only 13 per cent portrayed them as victims of violence. In reality, those diagnosed with mental health problems are at a much higher risk of becoming victims of violence than perpetrators.
At the opposite end of the scale, one film that received high praise for its sympathetic depiction of mental illness and psychiatric wards was One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Despite the refreshing outlook of the film, Wahl pointed out that the filmmakers made patients with mental illnesses look strikingly different from the rest of the characters so as to distinguish them from the ‘normal’ people. He also remarked that producers had wanted to use real patients from the Oregon state hospital for a number of roles but found that they did not look ‘crazy’ enough.
In 1986 a study by Gerbner et al on the influence of television-viewing and fear showed a correlation between substantial television viewing (more than 4 hours a day) and fear of crime, particularly physical attacks.
Further to this, Dowler et al found significant evidence of negative effects from the media’s portrayals of mental illness on public attitude and self-stigmatisation of those with mental health problems.
These findings help to demonstrate how much power film and television have over their viewers. Specifically, the negative effect these uneducated and inaccurate depictions of mental illness are having on the opinions of their audiences and on people with mental health issues.
Today we live in a society that sees around 6,000 suicides recorded in the UK each year; 70 million workdays lost annually, with mental illness as the leading cause; 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 10 children suffering from mental health problems; no obligatory mental health education, and; 1 in 5 of the people questioned in a survey saying they believe that mental illness is a lack of self-discipline and willpower.
Therefore, should film and television not be held accountable for the influence they have? Is it not time for them to demonstrate greater responsibility in how they represent a stigmatised issue?
It should be pointed out that if this article had been written about the media portraying homosexual people in the same light as they do the mentally ill, or a particular race as dangerous, violent offenders, there would be worldwide uproar.
Yet mental illness is fair game …
Perhaps film and television should consider whether it’s fair to make a certain group of people even more vulnerable, even more stigmatised and even more misunderstood in the name of money, awards and entertainment. It would be far better to use their power, influence and creativity to educate, destigmatize and benefit the people in society that they have hindered thus far.