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Column: Does Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness help or hinder awareness

Silver Linings Playbook is the latest movie to deal with issues surrounding mental health, but does cinema succeed in bringing these issues to the fore or are they more harmful than helpful, asks Darren Mooney.

Darren Mooney

IT’S AMAZING THE discussion that an Oscar nomination can generate. For the rest of the year, we very seldom actually talk about movies and what they mean or what they say about society, but the Academy Awards serve as a focal point for debate.

We get to see arguments and criticisms that we wouldn’t otherwise see. Silver Linings Playbook served as a flash point for debates about the depiction of mental illness in film.

Can movies be accurate?

Some were quick to criticise the accuracy of the portrayal of bi-polar disorder in David O. Russell’s film. Erin Stewart, a writer for Australia’s Ramp Up disability blog, said “Sitting in the cinema, I kept waiting to see the film portray the depressive side of the illness. ‘When are they going to get to the crushing depression?’ I asked myself. As the filmed progressed, my question changed to, ‘Why won’t they show the crushing depression?’”

However, there were also those who offered a defence of the movie’s depiction of the mental health problems confronting the lead characters. ”It’s Hollywood, so there are still going to be things that are there more for the story than for accuracy,” Harvard Medical School psychiatist Dr Steven Schlozman argued in Vulture. ”But they did a very nice job of depicting manic depressive illness or bipolar disorder in somebody who’s quite bright, and who has limited but present insight on it. Only about 40 percent of people with bipolar disorder will look back on a manic episode and realize that they were manic,” he said.

Of course, we’ve had this discussion before. A Beautiful Mind took home the Best Picture Award in 2002. A biography of mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr, the film earned director Ron Howard his first two Oscars (for Best Picture and Best Director) and Russell Crowe his third Best Actor nomination. While the film earned critical acclaim, reaction to its portrayal of mental illness was less cohesive.

(Via YouTube/movieclips)

Starting the conversation

Some praised the film’s portrayal of Nash’s schizophrenia. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill praised the film’s depiction of Nash’s struggles, stating it was authentic. It speaks many truths.”

However, other commentators were more skeptical. New York Times critic A.O. Scott condemned the film for veering from the facts of the story, to offer a more conventional life-affirming narrative. ”Anything that would dilute our sympathy by acquainting us with the vicissitudes of Mr Nash’s real life has been airbrushed away,” he argued, ”leaving a portrait of a shy, lovable genius.” The story told here, according to Scott, ”is almost entirely counterfeit.”

These films aren’t the exception. There’s a long line of debate and discussion about the portrayal of mental illness in Oscar-nominated films. Films like Rain Man and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest continue to generate heated arguments to this day. Some argue that they are classic slices of cinema that succeeded in bringing the issue to the fore, but others suggest their impact has been more harmful than helpful.

Changing attitudes – for good or bad?

For example, a study in 1983 by psychiatrist George Domino discovered that, while documentaries had done little to change viewers attitudes towards mental health issues, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had actually had a negative impact on perceptions concerning those suffering from mental illness.

(Via YouTube/Jonathan Whitehead)

Similarly, Rain Man has also been criticised for over-simplifying its portrayal of autism. After her three-year-old son had been diagnosed with autism, Variety film critic Leslie Felperin accused the film of promulgating ”the very misleading notion that people with autism are likely to be savants with incredible memory skills, when the vast majority of them aren’t.”

However, at least these films are generating debate and raising awareness of mental health issues. While the portrayals might be far from accurate, at least the high profile of the discussion ensures that a debate will occur and that the profile of these illnesses might be raised.

Thanks to the prestige of the Oscar race, and the attention that it generates, even the most inaccurate or insensitive portrayals are likely to draw vocal criticism or spark discussion. While far from an ideal situation, these mistakes can at least be criticised and more information on mental illness can be distributed.

Generating the debate

Given that – according to Ireland’s Mental Health Commission – one in every four people will deal with mental illness in their life-time, anything done to raise the profile of these conditions and to generate discussion may do some measure of good. However, things are more complex outside of Oscar season, when it seems that films are less likely to generate that sort of debate.

In horror films, for example, it is almost reflexive to treat those suffering from mental illness as potential killers. In both versions of Halloween, Mike Myers even breaks out of a hospital after an extended stay, so he can start killing again. Despite being a fixture of Gotham City since Denny O’Neil created it in 1974, Batman’s Arkham Asylum has only recently begun to generate discussion on the way that comic books portray the mentally ill.

When a quick-and-easy motivation for the villain in a summer blockbuster is needed, mental illness is a convenient excuse. Classifying a villain as ”crazy” or ”insane” saves a lot of time that might otherwise have to be devoted to character development.

Mental illness and violent behaviour

Television franchises like Criminal Minds or CSI regularly feature portrayals of mental illness that treat those suffering from mental health issues as criminals ready to happen. These portrayals are undeniably damaging. ”The automatic association of mental illness with violence,” Dr Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, argued in Psychology Today.

The use of schizophrenia” in popular culture is often confused or misleading. Even those films which do take care to properly classify schizophrenia often make mistakes in portraying it. For example, at the risk of spoiling A Beautiful Mind, John Nash’s schizophrenia did not express itself in visual hallucinations, but auditory hallucinations.

Mental illness remains a stigma that is often hard to properly discuss in modern society. Portrayals of mental illness in popular culture probably don’t help. The popular stereotype (still perpetuated by a large amount of popular film and television) that the mentally ill are violent or dangerous makes it less likely that those with problems will be willing to talk about it, for fear of being ostracised.

On the other hand, at least some of these films do generate discussion and raise awareness. While the fidelity of A Beautiful Mind to the facts of John Nash’s case might be up for debate, the film does humanise the mathematician. Similarly, both of the lead characters in Silver Linings Playbook exist as people rather than psychological conditions. These portrayals might not be perfect, but they do indicate that Hollywood might be making slow steps forward.

Darren Mooney has a movie blog, them0vieblog.com . You can get in touch with Darren here. To read more articles by Darren for TheJournal.ie click here.

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