​​The fragile line between representing and shaming mental illnesses – encounters from Hollywood
Mental Health

​​The fragile line between representing and shaming mental illnesses – encounters from Hollywood

Hollywood has a long history of misrepresenting those with mental health conditions. These representations are usually portrayals of people with mental illness as violent and dangerous, which contribute to harmful stereotypes about mental illness. However, some recent attempts at showing the reality of mental illness have been successful despite the varied experience person-to-person.

Hollywood: exploring the Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) with an emphasis on women: Girl, Interrupted

Girl, Interrupted was the first movie I remember dealing with a serious mental condition, which is Borderline Personality Disorder. ñ´`++Released in 1999, the film narrates the story of a young woman in the 1960s struggling with the uncertainty of her own mental illness, after the persuasion from her parents, Susanna Kaysen (played by Winona Ryder) admits herself into an institution and is later diagnosed with BPD, which affects the way in which the person interacts with their own reality in relation to others.

Nowadays, this is treatable without admission and has successful outpatient treatment programmes, and I feel the symptoms were severely overplayed by Ryder at first. However, it did get right the effects of long-term hospitalisation in the 1960s. 

It does provide a great picture of one’s own battle with discovering the truth behind one’s condition and shows the personal frustration and confusion involved in understanding one’s disorder in a time when society lacked much insight into them.

The most dangerous depiction of mental illness in Girl, Interrupted is the character Lisa’s Sociopathic Personality Disorder. Played by Angelina Jolie, who then became the poster girl of the film, Lisa Rowe is shown as having been institutionalised since she was twelve and escaped several times over her eight-year stay.

Her overdramatized rebellious, egotistical, and obstreperous behaviour is shown through sadistically harming other patients for amusement, which is a harmful stereotype for people who suffer from SPD.

Critiquing Hollywood: Exploring how Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) should or should “not” be represented

Split, a 2016 film about a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID) kidnaps three girls, threatening and severely harming them. While actor James McAvoy gives a dramatic performance as the villain, Kevin Wendell Crumb, the movie has come under fire from medical professionals, who say the film stigmatises the disorder and may have a negative impact on people who have the condition.

Stereotypes of people with mental illness as dangerous and incompetent individuals reduce them to nothing but the most exaggerated and caricatured versions of their diagnoses. These caricatures are the products of how mental illness is represented by arguably the most influential institution of our culture: film.

Inspiration for the film came from the real-life system Billy Milligan, who was charged with three rapes, and was the first person diagnosed with DID to use an insanity defense by reason of that disorder, and also the first to be acquitted as a result. The Icahn School of Medicine says people with DID, who may represent over 1% of Americans, are rarely violent, and research has shown they are far more likely to hurt themselves than to hurt others.

“Movies tend to portray only the most extreme aspects of the disorder, which can misrepresent a form of mental health that is not well understood by the lay public, and even some psychiatrists,”

the research said. 

DID is described by the National Alliance on Mental Illness as a disorder that forms when someone is trying to escape reality as a result of a traumatic situation such as abuse. People who develop DID shift between separate identities they form inside their heads that were created to escape the trauma and these personalities may have names, traits, mannerisms, and distinctive voices.

When the person switches between personas, they experience memory gaps. People with DID often have out-of-body experiences and may feel like voices are trying to control or possess them. DID often comes with other mental illnesses such as anxiety, bipolar, and depression.

Therefore, I recently watched Moon Knight – my hopes were high that the Disney series would do justice to the same illness, yet, I am still torn to see how it’s been handled. Young Marc, played by Carlos S. Sanchez, had a little brother, Randall (Claudio Fabian Contreras), and the boys would go on adventures in the nearby caves.

But when they entered during a storm and Randall drowned, Marc was blamed for this by his grieving mother and we witness through the memories that Marc and his father, Elias (Rey Lucas), had little opportunity to grieve due to his mother, Wendy’s (Fernanda Andrade), devastation. Wendy never got help for her grief, instead, she channelled it into alcoholism, violence, and abuse towards Marc. 

This is an experience that would most definitely cause DID to develop in a young child’s brain and adult Marc (Oscar Isaac) now shares his body with a range of different personalities. Each of them has their own traits, as well as strengths and weaknesses. His “Steven Grant” alter has been created as a way to deal with his grief after losing Randall, whereas “Jake Lockley” may have originated to serve the more gruesome aspects of Marc’s professional life as a mercenary. In the beginning, whoever the dominant alter is suffers from memory loss when another of the personalities takes control of the body.

Marc and Steven initially have trouble sharing the body they inhabit because when one of them takes over, the other tries to gain back control and they resist each other to the point of danger; a very real experience in terms of how people with DID experience things. The show’s depiction of how Marc and Steven try to coexist with each other is possibly the most challenging and accurate representation of the day-to-day people with the illness experience. 

Marc and Steven do discover by the end of the season – when they acknowledge the fact that they are not so different to each other – that one is a vital part of the other. How they deal with the emergence of Jake later on, is yet to unfold.

My issue is the continuation of the trope that people with DID are inherently violent, especially seen in the character of Jake. The stereotype that people with mental illness are prone to violence has been an especially problematic trope in movies and TV shows including the likes of Fight Club and Psycho where characters with DID are often shown to have at least one particularly violent or criminally inclined personality.

I do, however, applaud Isaac’s sterling performance and empathy when approaching this role, for which he said he researched the language of those living with the disorder, finding it “very dreamlike and symbolic”.

Possibly the best portrayal of mental illness on screen is Andrew Deluca’s character on Grey’s Anatomy. (Fuck you for taking away this beautiful fictional human, Shonda.)  The show started off showing him in a depressive episode but it was so subtle that if you blinked, you might have missed it. And many did.

With bipolar disorder, another illness I struggle with, this is how it begins – mild and having no motivation. His mania was also subtle, but his symptoms grew more severe the longer he went untreated. When his symptoms started to take hold and become more apparent, the other characters on the show didn’t turn away, but rather wanted to help – something that is rare and unrealistic but when Deluca claimed a child was part of a human trafficking scandal his claim was dismissed due to his mania.

This really hit home because I know how I can sound when I’m manic; I can lose touch with reality but that doesn’t mean all of my judgments are wrong. And the hardest part is being heard. 

The fact that he wasn’t wrong about the trafficking case showed that what could have been a trope of people living with bipolar seem paranoid when they’re symptomatic was a real concern. Deluca’s hyper fixation on Richard Webber’s illness was also an example of his mania coming through not sleeping at all and having the utmost confidence that he could solve any problem the world threw at him.

I felt my diagnosis was being accurately represented when I saw Deluca’s world crumbling from under him. His job loss and relationships ending were all so relatable. It’s not easy to accept that your illness is out of your control and Grey’s Anatomy handled all aspects of showing his bipolar disorder unfolding in a manner that was accurate and sensitive.

Concluding Thoughts

Dangerous depictions of people suffering from mental illnesses often show unstable people that many feels are not deserving our help or attention, further entrenching the stigma. In reality, people who are fighting not just the neurotypical system that ensures people with disabilities live in poverty but also fighting voices in their heads and a host of terrifying thoughts. Often, these people are incapable of seeking help on their own.

The face of mental illness is often subtle but also ugly and scary with houseless communities and correctional facilities overflowing with real human beings suffering from real mental disabilities who couldn’t get help if their lives depend on it. So the way in which the media – and Hollywood in particular – portrays mental illness is not only dangerous for public perception but perpetuates the tropes that keep these people downtrodden in society.

When films and stories vilify and demonise mental illness in general, the viewer does not understand how hard it can be for that person to survive. That’s why it is important for films and TV shows to approach mental illness with caution and a lot of research from people with lived experience.