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Feature Article:
(mis)Representations of Mental Illness in Cinema

Mental illness as depicted in the cinema is rarely reflective of reality. Who wants to pay a fiver to watch the drudging melancholy of depression, the incoherent confusion of schizophrenia, or the sad isolation of an anxiety disorder? No, we want the Michael Myers’, the Travis Bickle’s, the Forest Gump’s and the Randal McMurphy’s. Why? Because a true depiction of these conditions wouldn’t be entertaining.

Fictional film characters with mental conditions generally tend to fit into one of several extreme stereotypes, used to either shock, amuse or otherwise entertain us. These include the homicidal psychopath (Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and many other horror films), the rebellious free spirit (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and the schizoid loner on a mission (Taxi Driver, The Assassination of Richard Nixon).

Unfortunately, while these films are often entertaining, such portrayals may be distorting the film-going public’s perception of mental conditions. The repeated portrayal of violent psychopaths in slasher films undoubtedly may lead us to believe that people suffering from extreme mental disorders are inherently violent, whereas statistics show that such individuals are no more violent than the rest of the population.

On the other side of the movie spectrum, Jim Carrey’s comedic portrayal of a man suffering from multiple personality disorder in Me, Myself & Irene, whilst entertaining, may also have added to the stigmatisation and misconception of mental illness. As well as wrongly using the terms schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder interchangeably, the film, like many others before it, treats the ailment as a joke, outraging many mental health professionals.

A recent study by the University of Melbourne found that “portrayal of mental illness in fictional films predominantly perpetuates myths and stereotypes (and) there is evidence that these pervasive negative portrayals can have harmful effects, perpetuating the stigma associated with mental illness.”

Like no other art form, film has the power to influence people’s beliefs on a mass scale, therefore it can be argued that filmmakers have a responsibility to present such portrayals more accurately and conscientiously. That said, it’s important to remember that cinema is fiction and does not seek to be accurate at all times, nor is it the only medium to be creative with the truth.




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