Whenever we watch films on television (with the exception of channels like HBO and Starz), we are shown a version that has been edited for content. While watching Billy Madison on Nickelodeon recently, I noticed that one of the edited lines was the line where Adam Sandler calls another character a “psycho”. At first, I thought this was odd since most stations only edit words that involve sex, swearing, or racial slurs. However, I realized that editing out “psycho” was a smart decision because this can be harmful to those suffering from mental health issues. The term “psycho” is a negative term used to describe those that do not follow our society’s expectations of “normal”. I thought about how much it must hurt a person with a mental illness to hear that term being thrown around. Sadly, words like “psycho” and “nutcase” are thrown around so often, especially in the media. In fact, I can only name a few films that involve mental illness being portrayed as a “normal” part of life, which is pretty concerning when you think about how many Americans are diagnosed with some form of mental illness. This makes me wonder: how warped is Hollywood’s perception of mental health issues?
Unfortunately, the answer is a “very warped”; the majority of popular films deal with mental health incorrectly. Films either create myths about mental illnesses, or depict mentally ill characters as murderers, criminals, or generally “weak” people. For example, in The Hunger Games films, Katniss, the main character, has a mother who suffers from depression. In the first film, Katniss tells her mother “You can’t tune out again…No. You can’t. Not like when Dad died. I won’t be there anymore, and you’re all she has. No matter what you FEEL, you have to BE there for her. Do you understand? Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t… Don’t…” While I’m sure it was not intentional, this scene creates the myth that those suffering from depression have the power to stop themselves from “tuning out” and experiencing breakdowns. This can be harmful to our society because The Hunger Games films have a young fan base, and teenagers may begin to believe that their friends and family members who suffer from depression can “snap out of it” just like Katniss’s mother.
The Hunger Games also causes concerns when it comes to the main character’s mental well being. Throughout the films, Katniss suffers from grief and PTSD, yet she is never given proper resources to help her deal with these issues. However, whenever she is physically injured, she is given the highest quality healthcare. This reflects society’s idea that physical issues are taken more seriously than mental ones, and teaches the audience that if you are suffering mentally, you are essentially on your own.
Unfortunately, The Hunger Games movies are not the only films that portray mental illnesses in a negative light; films have been portraying mental illnesses incorrectly for many years. In an interview with author and psychologist Danny Wedding, Wedding explains how films cause audience members to believe that we should fear those suffering from mental illnesses. Wedding states that “Yeah, perhaps the most common myth is that people with mental illness are dangerous and violent, and the evidence is very clear that somebody with a disease like schizophrenia is far more likely to be the victim of violence than to be the perpetrator of violence. People with mental illness, homeless people who you see on the street typically, they are victims.“ This myth is reinforced in a majority of horror films such as The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Silence of the Lambs. Each of the main characters suffers from a mental illness, and are portrayed as harmful, thus convincing our society that we must steer clear of those with mental illnesses. As a result, those who develop mental health issues are afraid to come forward and seek help because of the stigma surrounding conditions like schizophrenia and depression.
While most horror films (and films in general) still use mental illness as a reason for villains to act out, there has been some progress with Hollywood’s portrayal of mental health issues. In recent years, Hollywood has produced films that include relatable characters with mental illnesses. Films like Silver Linings Playbook and A Beautiful Mind deal with more realistic aspects of mental illness, such as learning to get back out in the “real world” after being treated in a psychiatric institution, and being frustrated with the side effects of medications. These films are so important in this day in age because it allows audiences to view mental illnesses in a different light. Certain genres have taught us misconceptions about mental illnesses, but perhaps we can use films as a catalyst for change. By changing the way mental health is portrayed in film, we would not only educate others about mental illnesses, but it might make those who are suffering feel more comfortable about seeking help. We already know we don’t fall in love like the people in romantic comedies, so why should we believe films that associate someone with depression as an obvious criminal?
This article was written by Kim Dilisio, a writer for dusk magazine.