Throughout the 20th–21st centuries, mental illness has been portrayed in various forms of media, but nothing as prominent as in cinematic fashion.
Moreover, mental illness has also been exacerbated, glorified, stigmatized and glamorized, sometimes for the benefit of the movie and not necessarily for the sake of accuracy. As someone who has worked in the field of Psychology/Mental health for almost 10 years, I’ve taken notice of how those living with mental illnesses are portrayed, whether or not it’s accurate or just for show. Notice how I used the phrase “living with a mental illness” instead of saying “having a mental illness.” It isn’t enough that someone is diagnosed/has a mental illness, but how they live with it day in and day out that shows the true “character” of that person.
Before moving pictures were developed and introduced to the public in the 1880’s, mental illness had a long history of being portrayed through literature. From Hamlet to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, each character was “diagnosed” (given) an illness that was up for interpretation by the reader; some interpretations still exist to this day. With the production of movies, these interpretations were brought to life through actors/actresses which, coincidentally, were also interpreting how their character may act given their diagnosis.
It wasn’t until 1952 when the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM as it’s known in the field of Psychology, was introduced and gave a more accurate description of the mental disorders people were suffering from/living with. Throughout the past 60+ years, the DSM has gone through several revisions, but many of the criteria associated with diagnoses have remained the same, from which it gives readers and Hollywood-types a foundation to base a character off. From Psycho to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to A Beautiful Mind and Silver Linings Playbook, audiences have not only been introduced to strikingly different characters, but to a world in which they could not imagine anyone having to live. Unfortunately, some audiences forget that these characters are based off of real-life individuals and are, at their core, still human beings.
Now, more than ever, more information is readily available at our fingertips as to what mental illnesses are and how they affect everyday individuals. What I encourage readers of this op-ed to do: the next time you watch a movie, read a book or view a television show in which the main character or characters are living with a mental illness, and you’re curious enough, do some research and understand that there are others out there who are going through something similar.
Sure, others will have biases and make assumptions such as “everybody with Schizophrenia is crazy” or “people who a Bipolar can’t be loved;” I use these because I’ve heard them before. Don’t let this sway you into judging others too quickly; they are human beings just like you or I. They’re fighting a daily battle in which you or I can never understand, but we can take a moment out of our day to try. John Nash (A Beautiful Mind), Chris Kyle (American Sniper) and Shirley Ardell Mason (Sybil) were all real people; the only difference between us and them is that they had to fight a little harder each day to feel “normal.” But, at the end of the day, what is “normal” anyway?