As part of mental health awareness week I’ve posted on different topics to get a dialogue going and hopefully get some people thinking about mental health.
As I mentioned on Tuesday, one of the benefits to modern media, and especially social media, is the ability to raise awareness and reach a very broad audience of people.
One very wide-reaching media is the film industry, and mental health often features in its multitude of genres.
I, along with many others out there, have a fascination with how mental health appears in the movies. It’s a fascination that began before I started studying psychology….about 15 years ago now (which makes me feel quite dated!). I even apply mental health theories and principles to films that are not directly about mental health these days…and class it as revision!
A report published by time to change in 2009 entitled screening madness sadly pointed out that mental health stereotypes run rife in movies. The state that characters often fall into one of these four categories:
This is still an occurrence in the movies. A recent example was the film ‘The voices’ featuring Ryan Reynolds.
This movies main character suffers distress and hallucinations, and it is hinted that this was due to a genetic disposition and childhood trauma. Sadly, it is the story of the violence that this character commits, with a little dark comedy thrown in. On the one hand the character comes across as quite misguided in his actions rather than malevolent. It was a nice touch that his therapist right until the last believed that he was just a very unwell person in need of help, but sadly the ending of the film does not suggest that recovery is possible and that there was only one option for this individual (which is completely false!). It’s ironic that the character is generally getting on with life quite well and there is a moment in the film of apparent shared understanding, which suggests that the character could have made a good recovery with the right help…. but I guess their ending was easier for them to make, or deemed more entertaining….. I don’t know by who!
Anyway, for all I recognise that this movie hit a lot of stereotype buttons did I dislike it? No, not really.
What do we watch movies for? Sometimes to be educated or understand something in more detail, but usually it is to be entertained. And we recognise this generally.
Horror films still enjoy focusing on the old concept of asylums, despite care predominantly moving away from an inpatient setting these days (let alone the Victorian style asylums). Is this because horror film makers know that we are often afraid of what we do not know or understand?
If they made a movie about my boring mundane little life I would probably be changed, and stereotyped, innumerably. And why does this happen? Because it is easier to create a stereotyped character because an audience quickly recognise them and know what they are about (or think that they do). We create these schemas in our mind, after all, to make life easier and quicker to understand for ourselves. And telling the whole truth (in my case certainly) would be very mundane. It is brilliant film makers that turn real life into entertainment – the film Boyhood jumps straight to mind. Incidentally Boyhood also deals with themes of mindfulness too!
Additionally the film industry often stereotypes other groups – women stand out quite often. Do we need all films to be realistic?
It could also be argued that films, no matter how outrageous the stereotypes, get us thinking and talking about mental health. On the other hand this discussion often needs to be based on a better education to make the dialogue useful. Time to change point out
A YouGov survey commissioned for the report found that almost 50 per cent (49 per cent) of the public have seen people with a mental illness acting violently in films. The survey also found that almost half of people polled (44 per cent) believe that people with a mental illness will act violently.
So do we need to start tackling stigma in the real world before we attack the film industry? How damaging can stereotypes be? In the film The Dark Knight batman describes the joker (the catalyst in the chaos Gotham finds itself descending into) as a ‘schizophrenic clown’ – at the time, this comment passed me by (despite the fact that it couldn’t be more incorrect!) but is that because the label is not applied to me? Would I have felt upset if it did apply more directly to me?
There is a small collection of academic evidence that would support the use of film, movie or cinematherapy for supporting people through difficult life events and relationship work. Webmd summarise this and what it entails as well as the uses it might have.
There are some wonderful films that deal with mental health issues. Mindreel, supported by Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, would be a good resource to get a more balanced idea of real mental health experiences. The Royal College of Psychiatrists also highlight some more mainstream films with their discussions of minds on film. Personal choices would include Still Alice, Birdman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Donnie Darko, A Beautiful Mind, Girl Interrupted, The Virgin Suicides and many more. Despite this personal opinion it is worthwhile for us all to think more about that we are watching and how the movies compare to the real world. Real life is not over glamorised, always dramatic and action packed – we often forget that when we spend too much time detached from real experiences.