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  • Tori Scott

How Cinema Stigmatises Mental Health

For countless years, horror movies have used mental health as the basis to their “frightening” tales. Movies like The Shining, Split, Psycho and The Joker are good examples of the depiction of mental health in a horror setting. The misrepresentation of mental health in these movies is negative, violent, and aggressive; wrongful and false depictions of serious illnesses aiding the fear factor in their movies.

In particular, the representation of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) in the movie Spilt. Someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder may feel uncertain about their identity and who they are. Feel the presence of other identities, each with their own names, voices, personal histories and mannerisms. In the movie, it is displayed that Kevin has twenty-three personality which causes him to act out and abduct three young girls. This presents the main character as dangerous and monstrous which is highly damaging for those diagnosed with DID in real life as this is a false representation of the disease.

“The misconception that the mentally ill are dangerous, however, has real-world consequences

Two of the most well-known horror/psychological movies depict mental health in such a violent way that it comes across that those diagnosed with any form of mental health will behave that way. In The Shining, it shows Jack Torrance speaking to his employer about the pros and cons of the job. A con of the job is its isolating nature, which can severely affect those who are already vulnerable to mental illness. In Jack’s case, he begins to hallucinate and lash out at his family. These frustrations Jack exhibits start to become more aggressive and reaches a point of complete murderous rage.

Psycho portrays Norman Bates as a character with possible DID; dressing and acting like his mother and having difficulty with social skills are contributing factors of DID, but the acts of murder which Norman commits is something that is actually very unlikely to occur with those who have a diagnosis of DID.

Joker being that violently infamous villain from the ever so excellent Batman films made it so exciting to hear about a solo movie. However, this cinematically beautiful movie paints mental health and childhood trauma in a disgustingly violent manner.

"The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DONT," Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) writes in his journal.

The reoccurring display of mental health is to villainise them; for instance, to cast them into a role of a murderer or kidnapper. The list could go on for how Hollywood portrays mental health in an evil way, but it’s factually incorrect. When we come to look at movies that do represent mental health in a sensitive and tasteful manner, we are shown that it is okay to feel guilty for people who are struggling, it is okay to want to help them and it is okay to feel empathy for them. Unlike movies that misrepresent the illnesses, where it doesn’t feel like you should be able to relate to the villain.

As we have examined negative depictions of mental health, it is important to look at some of the positive and realistic depictions. For example, Inside Out, Silver Linings Playbook, Still Alice, A Beautiful Mind and Infinitely Polar Bear are some movies that effectively consider the need for sensitivity around mental health and display the illnesses with thoughtfulness.

When I first watched Still Alice, I shed a lot of tears, feeling genuine pain and love for Alice as she battled with a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease. It was depicted in a way that sensitively touched upon Alzheimer’s and also effectively showed how the family experience this disease. Alice was young when this disease started taking effect.

Alzheimer’s affects everyone differently but some well-known symptoms of the disease can be wandering, getting lost, repeating questions, taking longer to complete daily tasks and it progressively gets worse as the disease gets more severe. A scene that really showed the severity of this disease is when Alice gets lost looking for the bathroom and urinates herself.

“Julianne spent nearly half a year reading a huge number of books related to the disease. Her performance was aware of the acting, portraying a screen image of an intellectual and gorgeous patient with dementia for the audience. There was nothing to do with sympathy and rescue, but it was about understanding and company or, in short, love.”

Inside Out is a wonderfully animated film with a well-represented message about mental health. I found it to be important that the directors made sure to include how necessary it is to have both joy and sadness in your life. In the film, we see that without both joy and sadness, depression begins to take hold of Riley’s mind as fear, anger and agitation become increasingly more dominant- the most common mood swings in depression seen in young people.

Feeling irritable and not wanting to do things that were previously enjoyed is the most common thing that is seen in Inside Out as Riley experiences depression at a young age. Hockey, once loved by Riley, becomes a sport that she no longer wishes to play and is consumed by her emotions. This is an important representation of depression.

Movies that successfully portrayed mental health highlighted the importance of kindness, empathy and support when tackling mental illness; it is a topic that does need to be handled delicately, after all. In comparison, films such as Split or Joker, although they are interesting to watch and make for good entertainment, they fail to offer any deeper insight into the illnesses that they are portraying to their audience.

It can be such a detrimental representation of mental health to focus on stereotypes and complex symptoms because not everyone has a real-life experience of these issues, and consequently, a deeper understanding of how mental illness can affect those around us.

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