How well do you think you understand mental illness?
This was one of the questions on a survey I recently conducted online. The answers were varied, with some participants suffering from a form of mental illness themselves, and some having no personal experience whatsoever. From non-sufferers, there was a similar theme running through the answers: I’ve gathered information from the media and have a pretty accurate understanding.
But how accurate is the media?
From the survey, it seems that two primary characters are seen when representing mental illness on screen: the sexy, cool, ‘fucked up’ one, and the raving lunatic that is going to kill everyone around them. Films in the horror genre were commented on the most, and for good reason.
An example that cropped up was the character of Effy Stonem in the British drama Skins. Effy is shown to have a mental illness of some kind – although it is never clarified what her diagnosis is. She has episodes of psychosis, major depression and has substance abuse disorder. Her character is tragic, and is clearly a girl in immense pain. However, there is a huge fanbase around Effy, and she was idolised by many female viewers.
The storyline of Effy’s illness was also fairly one-sided; her recovery was never featured, and as the respondent noted, “unrealistic, involving an evil therapist, and I felt it discouraged people from getting help”.
The other side of the coin is horror movies. It seems to be fairly trendy to feature a central character with some form of mental disorder; Split (2016), Psycho (1960), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Shining (1980), Identity (2003), Thirteen (2003)… The list goes on. These films represent mental illness in the most stereotypical, misunderstood way. A common choice for the ‘big twist’ in a film is dissociative identity disorder (DID); the central character has ‘multiple personalities’ that lead them to go on a killing spree.
The mental illnesses featured are generally the less commonly spoken about ones – DID, psychosis, schizophrenia… The stigma surrounding these illnesses is then propelled due to the misconceptions gathered from on screen representation.
One study by Signorelli (1989) on violence and mental illness in television showed that over 17 years, 72.1% of mentally ill characters were shown to be violent (against the 41.6% of all adult characters) and 21.6% of the mentally ill characters had killed someone. This study was nearly 30 years ago, so it could be said that it’s fairly outdated. However, in 1992 it was found that 66% of media content dealing with mental illness made a link between mental illness and violence (Wahl, 1994). A two decade long study published in 2008 also revealed that the mentally ill are presented as abnormal and dangerous (Klin and Lemish, 2008).
So, it seems that the media are still providing distorted views of mental illness. But, how does that affect public understanding?
In my survey, non-sufferers were more likely to say that the media portrayed mental illness well, and helped to reduce the stigma. The majority (83%) of sufferers said the opposite.
People with personal, first-hand experience of mental illness believe that the media is predominantly stigmatising and inaccurate, whereas observers commented that they understand mental illness well because of the accurate portrayal through the media.
There are, of course, films that don’t make mentally ill people out to be raving mad, seductive, axe-wielding lunatics – but the evidence does show that it’s a common trend.
Personally, I must admit to enjoying a good psychological thriller with a bowl of popcorn. But do I think that my struggles with mental illness are accurately presented? No.