“What would Homeland be without Carrie Mathison’s unpredictability and intense AF eyes? Would Person of Interest be such a hit without Sameen Shaw’s bizarre brilliance? Complex characters are what make on-screen hits so gripping. But, in sensationalising mental health issues, Hollywood is treading a thin line.
Research shows that many people get their information about mental illness from TV and film. If the common depiction is negative and unrealistic this can lead to fear, avoidance and discrimination. But, if it’s done right, research shows people’s attitudes and understanding can drastically improve.
Check out two ways Hollywood failed it, and two ways Hollywood nailed it.
Perception (failed it)
Perception details the life of a schizophrenic neuroscience professor who moonlights as an FBI consultant. In true Hollywood fashion, instead of schizophrenia being shown as the invasive disorder that it is, it’s portrayed as a superpower. Daniel Pierce solves cases with the help of witnesses that he hallucinates. However, if anyone involved in this show had researched schizophrenia better – they’d know that full visual hallucinations are actually very uncommon, and are mostly auditory.
The series begins with Daniel and his best friend Natalie, who he is also in love with. Further on (spoiler alert) we learn that Natalie is in fact another hallucination, the recreation of a woman he glimpsed once at a college party. As a very convenient coincidence the real woman the character of Natalie is based on ends up being his therapist. Of course, they end up in a relationship, which is both completely unrealistic and disregards therapist/patient boundaries. The way the show presents Daniel is extremely one dimensional, and everything he is, says and does is guided by being schizophrenic.
Silver Linings Playbook (failed it)
Don’t get me wrong. The fact that a Hollywood blockbuster has actually recognised mental illness as a common life theme is definitely a milestone. But there are still a few things missing.
The main character, Pat, has been sectioned and diagnosed as bipolar after violently beating the man he discovered having sex with his wife. But throughout the film it’s never truly clear that Pat actually suffers from bipolar. The trauma he must have suffered at discovering his wife – who he considered his soulmate – engaging in carnal relations with another man, is completely underestimated. The character of Tiffany is slightly more believable; her husband has died suddenly in a terrible accident at a very young age, leaving her suffering from depression.
A key theme with both characters is the disdain they feel for medication. Admittedly, this can be common within sufferers of mental illness as the medication can cause horrible side-affects. However, the film never really shows the negative impact of completely disregarding professional intervention.
The film presents itself as delving into the warped underbelly of mental illness but, truthfully, although it’s heart-warming, entertaining and well-crafted, it’s essentially a rom-com with the overriding message that love conquers all. Unfortunately where mental illness is concerned, this just isn’t the case.
We often see characters defined by mental illness, giving them a heightened level of intelligence or making them unpredictable and violent. A common myth perpetuated on screen is that mentally ill people don’t get better. And even when mental illness is presented in a positive light, we rarely see progress. This encourages the view that treatment is ineffective; dangerous for increasing stigma and discrimination, and dangerous for dissuading people from seeking help.
Girls (nailed it)
Lena Dunham’s semi-autobiographical character Hannah Horvath struggles with OCD. Unlike other shows such as Monk that paint OCD as some kind of superpower, Girls does a good job of showing the very paralysing pervasive sort of anxiety that’s experienced. There is literally zero glamorisation here. Girls shows OCD as the relentless struggle that it is. Hannah’s OCD traits involve being fixated by symmetry and counting in eights, and like a lot of sufferers both of these behaviours are triggered by stress.
When Hannah is left alone after losing her job, her best friend, and breaking up with her boyfriend, she begins to slip into the cycle of her obsessions and compulsions. She ends up in hospital after getting an earbud stuck in her ear because of her compulsion to get her ear completely clean. Thankfully her ex-boyfriend Adam is there to pull her back from the brink, and she is able to begin controlling her OCD again. One of the best things about Girls’ portrayal of mental illness is that it shows progress and healing. Hannah, for the most part, is a well-functioning human despite her disorder.
My Mad Fat Diary (nailed it)
The BAFTA-nominated E4 drama based on the real life diaries of Rae Earl (My Mad Fat Teenage Diary) has been consistently praised for its portrayal of mental illness, and I agree.
One of the best things about this show is it demonstrates how easy mental illness is to hide, and how difficult it is for others to see. Rae has spent four months in a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt and on her release discovers that her mother has told everyone that she has been holidaying with her uncle in France. This might seem like an easy way out, but to Rae it just adds another thing to carry in her ‘backpack of bullshit’.
When mental illness is often teamed with teenagers in drama series, we normally see a dramatic decline and eventual breakdown. Very rarely do we get to see the recovery, and the struggles of mental illness coupled with normal teenaged angst. Throughout the series we see Rae trying to re-adjust to life outside of hospital and often this brings hilarious outcomes. The most important thing about Rae is that her illness does not define her, it’s something she learns to realise is just another part of her that she has to deal with. She copes with it with refreshing honesty and the journey is one of the most realistic recovery stories on TV. She doesn’t just suddenly get better, there are ups and downs, relapses and moments of sheer joy. This programme portrays a life lived with a mental illness not a mental illness ruling a life.
Hopefully this progression can continue, as shows like Girls and My Mad Fat Diary have proved that a storyline that shows mental illness in such a realistic and positive light without surrendering to damaging stereotypes.
This has been adapted from the original The News Hub article.