The Impact of Hollywood’s Depiction of Mental Illness

According to the World Health Organization, about 450 million people around the globe are (or will be) affected by some type of mental or neurological disorder. In the U.S. alone, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults, and that can be linked to depression, as well.

Needless to say, mental health disorders are extremely serious, and a leading cause of health-related issues all over the world. Since art tends to imitate life, it’s no surprise that many Hollywood movies try to tackle mental illness in different ways. Some show the real and raw side of it, others see the humor in it, and some take a subtle approach.

Unfortunately, movies aren’t real and they are created for entertainment purposes. So, inaccurate or exaggerated depictions of mental illnesses can make the community feel stigmatized, or give those without mental health conditions false information about what mental health issues really look like.

While there are some exceptions, especially on television, Hollywood has a long way to go.

Mental Illness and Hollywood Horror

So, why has Hollywood given mental illness such a bad reputation? One of the easiest ways to answer that is by looking at a variety of different horror/thriller films. Some of Hollywood’s most notable villains also are often associated with mental health conditions, including:

  • Hannibal Lecter
  • Jason Voorhees
  • Freddy Krueger
  • Norman Bates

What’s worse is when these ‘villains’ are subtle but their mental health isn’t fairly addressed, such as Hank Pym in Marvel’s Ant-Man. His character is known for having a series of mental health issues and even strikes his wife in a bout of domestic violence, but he is Ant-Man’s mentor, and his issues are never resolved or addressed further in the film.

Mental illness has been vilified far too often in Hollywood, making monsters out of those who need professional help. You can probably think of a large handful of movies where the stereotyped villain has gone through a pretty rough life to get to where they are. Take a look at perhaps the most famous villain of all: Darth Vader.

The Star Wars movies eventually let fans see more of his backstory and how he was manipulated and even abused on his road from Jedi to Sith, so while stars like Mark Hamil and Carrie Fisher get praised for their positive roles (as they should!), let’s not count out Darth Vader or any other villain who probably just needed some mental healthcare. Of course, it’s all for entertainment purposes, but mental health issues and “being the bad guy” shouldn’t always go hand-in-hand.

Are There Any Accurate Portrayals?

There are some more accurate depictions of mental health conditions in Hollywood films that have been portrayed beautifully over the years. The 2012 Oscar nominee Silver Linings Playbook, for example, followed the life of Pat, a charming young man with bipolar disorder. The film picks up just after Pat is released from a psychiatric hospital. Pat quickly meets a depressed woman named Tiffany, and they are quick to share their “crazy” stories, including medications they’ve taken.

While Silver Linings Playbook may go a bit too far at times with the mental health humor, the way Bradley Cooper plays Pat is a fairly accurate depiction of what someone with bipolar disorder faces, including regular ups and downs in emotion.

Another powerful portrayal of mental illness can be found in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind. The film is based on the real-life story of brilliant mathemetician John Nash, and it shows a reasonably accurate depiction of John’s struggle with schizophrenia. If you’ve seen the film, you will notice that John’s personality really never changes as he ages. But, the visions he sees and how real they become in his life tend to get worse. This is normal for those dealing with schizophrenia, even if director Ron Howard did take some creative liberties for dramatic effect.

While we touched briefly on mental health in horror films already, one portrayal that is a bit more accurate can be found in the 2015 film Sun Choke. Or, at least the first half of the film. While it’s a horror movie, the first half of the film focuses on a woman with an obvious mental health issue and a step-mother who is trying to “help” her through cruel and sometimes dangerous means. It’s difficult to believe that these situations happen in real life. And, again, this movie obviously takes some creative liberties. But, the mentally ill do often get mistreated, and that can make their condition(s) much worse.

What Can Be Done?

While Hollywood will likely continue to stretch the truth for entertainment purposes, it would be beneficial for everyone if more accurate portrayals of mental illnesses made it to the big screen.

One way to do that is for more people to understand the different types of mental illnesses and how they affect people in real life. For example, there are countless movies about characters with drinking problems or full-blown alcoholics. But, that isn’t often seen as a mental health condition with many possible consequences. Most movies don’t show alcohol withdrawal symptoms like:

  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Confusion
  • Irritability

Some movies also depict depression as something that requires you to rely heavily on medication to simply get through the day. These extremes can be dangerous and fuel the stereotypes those with mental health conditions already have to face.

The more people (including the people in Hollywood) educate themselves on what mental illness actually looks like, the more accurate those portrayals might become. That can start by giving more representation to healthcare professionals like nurses in the media, and listening more to mental health experts about what someone with a condition looks like or behaves like.

Until Hollywood makes some big changes in the way it portrays mental illness, be sure to watch films with some discretion, and don’t allow something created for entertainment purposes to taint your image of what mental health conditions look like.

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The Author

Jim Napier

Jim Napier

Lover of movies and The Big Lebowski.