Misrepresentation of Mental Illness in Hollywood: a Thesis Essay

Mental illnesses have been depicted through the characters of Hollywood films from the beginning of cinema. Although these illnesses may have not been depicted to the audience through direct on-screen diagnosis, the symptoms of these illnesses have been used to drive plot points and as the basis for character motivations. The result of these depictions on the public’s image of mental illness has been observed and it raises the question of what effect specific representation of individuals with mental illnesses will have on the public’s interpretation. Major motion Hollywood films such as Fatal Attraction offer negative portrayals of common mental illnesses such as borderline personality disorder which influence the societal stigmatization of mental illnesses by posing mentally ill individuals as violent and dangerous to society, instilling fear of them among much of the public. 

The presence of negative portrayals of individuals with mental illness is reflected through both new and old Hollywood films, arising different attributes of negative portrayal. Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) serves as a representative case for the misrepresentation of mental illnesses in Hollywood. In the film Glen Close’s character goes to violent, terrifying lengths in attempting to be with Michael Douglas’ character after having a brief affair. Close’s portrayal of impulsivity, manipulation to avoid abandonment, and self harm reflect attributes of borderline personality disorder. Although the character’s actions could be realistically explained by the symptoms of borderline personality disorder, the issue of representation lies in the lack of effort to explain Close’s mental health within the film, not extending further than describing her as a “crazy bitch”. This attribute gives evidence to there being an existing problem within Hollywood films in the portrayal of individuals with mental illnesses, lying not in the inaccurate depiction of potential  symptoms, but in reserving mentally ill characters for the violent, psychotic seeming antagonist. 

With the most common stereotypical conception of those with mental illnesses in film being the portrayal of them as a danger to others, many examples are thus present in high grossing, major motion pictures (Chouinard, 2009).  More recently, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016) serves as an example of the vilifying of mental illness, in particular, dissociative identity disorder (DID). The problematic aspect of the film is the innate violence within the antagonist’s (James McAvoy’s) identities, allowing for his character to take on the role of a serial killer. This examples the furthering of the issue of Hollywood exploiting  mental illnesses in order to service characters with intensely violent ends. In reality, 1 to 3 percent of the population experiences DID and are reported as being far more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else (Wedding, 2012). An additional point raised by the movie Split is the lack of depiction of mentally ill individuals being able to obtain help and resolve. This is particularly evident in Split as throughout the film the antagonist is shown having sessions with a psychiatrist which are unable to have any success in reaching McAvoy’s character. This issue is additionally present within Fatal Attraction, in both films the character is shown to escalate in violent behaviour to a point in which the resolution could only be solitary confinement for the rest of their life or death, with the latter being the primary choice of Hollywood films.

The presenting of mentally ill characters being by in large violent and disruptive to society can seem like a harmless act when it allows for disturbed and violent character’s motivations to be realistically explained. However, the concerning element of this portrayal is the stigmatizing effect that it causes among the public viewing these films. A 1991 survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation questioned the public on where they obtain their impressions of mental illness, the most-cited sources were those of mass media, namely film (Wahl, 1995). This reflects not only the ability of hollywood films to perpetrate stereotypes among the public, but additionally the high frequency of characters with mental illnesses present in major motion pictures. Television and film have proven to be influential enough on the public’s perception of mental illness that interpretations from the two forms of media will even take precedence over people’s real life experiences with people with mental illnesses (Philo, 1996). The ability of mass media, importantly film, to imprint impressions of mental illness on the public is thus reflected. This effect culminating in stigmatization can be understood by considering the plentiful depictions of people with mental illnesses as being violent and something to be feared in society. 

The public’s interpretations of mental illness from film, stigmatized as a cause of stereotypes reinforcing a fear of those affected by mental illness, serves to create a fear of those affected by mental illnesses (Klin & Lemish, 2008). When considering whether this fear comes primarily as a cause of ignorance on the field or from bombardment of images (stereotypical violent depictions), the intentions of the film makers that are perpetuating these stereotypes comes into question. Research has shown that further knowledge on the field of mental illness does not necessarily correlate with greater openness for those afflicted by mental illness (Link et al., 1999). This attribute is reflected by directors Lyne and Shyamalan (of Fatal Attraction and Split respectively) who do not inaccurately depict potential symptoms of illnesses such as BPD and DID, but choose to exploit these symptoms in one-sided, violent, evil characters. This lack of apparent empathy or openness for the realistic side of an individual with a mental illness reflects a complacent fear of those with mental illness, reflecting the belief that it is justified or accurate to only portray people affected by mental illness in this dark, violent tone. 

This issue of fear towards mental illness in society as a cause of the stigmatization linked to the depictions in Hollywood films presents itself as relevant to modern society as this fear puts mentally ill people at even more of a risk in society. Presently, cost efficient and effective professional treatments exist for mental illnesses, yet the small portion of 20-35 percent of people affected by mental illness seek assistance (Brown & Bradley, 2002). This reflects that the fear that extends from the interpretations of those with mental illnesses in film additionally affects those with mental illnesses. Fear of judgement and awareness of the stigmatization of mental illness are primary reasons that prevent the 65-80 percent of people afflicted by mental illness from seeking assistance (Philo, 1996).  This lack of seeking assistance reflects the additional factors of the stigmatization of mental illness in society at large. The fear instilled in the public is additionally troubling in a relevant sense as the media has not made it clear that the proportions of crimes committed by mentally ill individuals is much lower than the amount of depictions would suggest. Only a small percentage of people afflicted with mental illness commit severe crimes, so much so that the amount of general violence associated with mental illness is roughly 14% (Angermeyer & Schulze, 2001). 

A step forward in the film industry in regards to representation of mental illness would likely lie in the future of depictions. What is potentially the best way to rectify past notions presented in Hollywood films is to immediately altar them in movies being produced now. In order to counter an obtuse representation of mental illness, there should be more characters that reflect the vast majority of those afflicted by mental illness. This would effectively be the process of normalization, in which the viewer’s perspectives would eventually align more with an accurate understanding of how individuals with mental illnesses function in society. A shining example of success in this normalization would be the recent film Silver Linings Playbook (2012) in which the attributes and symptoms of mental illness are used to develop characters in the portrayal of their romantic relationship, rather than being used to add reality to a character who has seemingly inhuman violent aspects.

The misrepresentation of mental illness in Hollywood films is an important element to be identified and evaluated. Movies such as Fatal Attraction and Split depict individuals with mental illnesses as principally violent and disturbing, suggesting that individuals with mental illnesses are dangerous to society. Depictions such as these have the influence of stigmatizing mental illness for the viewing public, furthering the fearful notions present in stereotypes. This stigmatization creates a fear of those with mental illness, as well as asserting a fear of prejudice and confrontation for those afflicted by a mental illness. A remedying step forward would be furthering the process of normalization of individuals with mental illness in film, allowing for other stories of mental illness not reliant on rash violence to be told. 

Works Cited

Chouinard, Vera. “Placing the ‘mad Woman’: Troubling Cultural Representations of being a Woman with Mental Illness in Girl Interrupted.” Social & Cultural Geography 10.7 (2009): 791-804. Web. 19 Nov. 2019

Wahl, Otto F. Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness. Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Wedding, D, . “The portrayal of bipolar disorder, mental illness and mental health professionals in films”. International Clinical Psychopharmacology, vol. 28, December 2012, pp. e28. doi: 10.1097/01.yic.0000423282.65090.29.

Philo, Greg. Media and Mental Distress. Longman, 1996.

Klin, Anat, and Dafna Lemish. “Mental Disorders Stigma in the Media: Review of Studies on Production, Content, and Influences.” Journal of Health Communication, 2008, doi:10.1080/10810730802198813.

Brown, Kaylene, and Loretta J Bradley. “Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness.” Journal of Mental Health Counseling , vol. 24, no. 1, Jan. 2002, https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-83032629/reducing-the-stigma-of-mental-illness-professional.

Angermeyer, MC, and B Schulze. “Reinforcing Stereotypes: How the Focus on Forensic Cases in News Reporting May Influence Public Attitudes Towards the Mentally Ill.” University of Leipzig, 2001, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11521421.

Lyne, Adrian, Director. Fatal Attraction. Paramount Pictures, 1987.

Shyamalan, M Night, Director. Split. Universal Pictures, 2017.

Russell, David O., Director. Silver Linings Playbook. Weinstein Company, 2012.