Hollywood and Mental Health

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. 

2 Comments on Hollywood and Mental Health

  1. Blake Lewolt // June 11, 2016 at 4:47 pm // Reply

    Thank you Kim.

    Loved this article, and found it very relevant. I was intrigued when you pointed out the disparity found in Katniss’ medical treatments for mental vs. physical ailments. This is, unfortunately, the perfect allegory for widespread views on mental illness.

    I could wax philosophical for days on this topic, but I’ll spare you and stick to 2 (I swear) key points.

    *I love that you used “psycho” as a reference point in the beginning of your article. However, not to be contrary, I think that actually censoring the word itself just gives it more power…in the most negative way possible. PC? Sure. Offensive? As a schizophrenic, the idea of the word “psycho” being labeled as taboo pisses me off on principle. As you so aptly put it, Psycho, psychotic, psychoses, etc. are all terms associated (mostly incorrectly) with violence. The term “Psychotic” refers to a syndrome typically characterized by Visual and Auditory (and if you’re REALLY lucky, Tactile) hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking, and a general can’t-wake-from-this-nightmare disconnect. I’ve found it interesting as well, how often “Schizophrenia” is confused with “Dissociative identity disorder,” or Multiple Personalities if you prefer.

    Same ballpark, different amount of players.

    *I think something that even the darkest minds in horror fail to convey, is the very reason so many people experiencing symptoms stay quiet instead of seeking help. Namely: It is absolutely astounding how incredibly evil things can get. In my personal experience, and that of others, many afflicted can’t help but wonder;

    …Insidious global conspiracy, murder plots by loved ones, Demonic commands served fresh-from-the-pit…

    “Ok, so none of this is real.” “I can hang.” At the same time, however…

    This awful shit has to come from somewhere, and it’s in MY head.

    …What does that make me?

    Food for thought. Loved your article, and sorry about the novel.



  2. Hey, Blake! I’m glad you enjoyed the article!No worries about the length of your comment! I’m glad this article was able toopen up a discussion for a topic that definitely needs to be talked about. I actually went back and re-read myarticle (it’s been a while since I wrote it and I had forgotten parts of it),and I realize that it was a bold move on my part, as well as society ingeneral, to assume that EVERYONE with a mental illness would get offended bythese terms. I have heard people suffering from certain mental illnesses getupset over words like “psycho” getting tossed around, but you brought up agreat point. While some may become offended, others may get upset over certainwords becoming taboo. Your view on censoringwords made me realize that maybe we should be rethinking what we are censoringwhen it comes to media. Now that I think about it, I believe that not censoringcertain words can be helpful because it can serve as a catalyst for discussingwhat some of these words actually mean. You mentioned in your comment thatpsychotic “refers to a syndrometypically characterized by Visual and Auditory (and if you’re REALLY lucky,Tactile) hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking”. I thought about akid sitting at home hearing that word on a show and asking his or her parentwhat a “psycho” is. This would give the adult the chance to talk to the childabout the definition and how some people have mental illnesses that affecttheir thought process. If we censor these words, we’re using an “out of sight,out of mind mentality”, and it becomes harder to talk about these things, whichis the opposite of what we need to be doing.

    Iknow that many view anxiety and depression as very similar conditions, but Ihad no idea that people often confused DID and Schizophrenia. It’s sad becauseit shows how uneducated our society is about mental illnesses. I think thatthis proves that we need to have more conversations about mental health,because once people become familiar with what these conditions are, we can endthe stigma that those with a mental illness are “violent” or not capable ofliving successful lives. Once we end that stigma, I’m sure more people will bewilling to come forward and get treatment for their illnesses because they willno longer have to be viewed as “freaks” or “dangerous”. I can’t even begin toimagine what it must be like to have Schizophrenia. From your description, itsounds like nothing short of a constant Hell. You asked what that makes you,and I don’t want to sound cliché, but I think that makes you stronger that agood chunk of people out there. You’re fighting with these intense thoughts ona regular (daily?) basis, and there are people out there who refuse to takeyour condition seriously.  I don’tthink Schizophrenia makes you a monster, I don’t think it makes you weak, orany less of a person. Your very insightful comment showed me that you are avery intelligent individual, who seems very well-written and I hope that othersview you in the same light- not just as someone with a mental illness.


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