Mental Illness: Portrayal and Representation in Popular Culture Megan Mosher

Mental Health

According to the American Psychiatric Association (2014), 1 in 5, or 18.5% of adults in the United States experience a mental illness in a given year. Based on this high prevalence, it is shocking that mental illness remains a hush-hush topic rarely being discussed for fear of stigmatizing and shaming. This lack of a conversation stems from an overall lack of understanding about the topic.

Mental Health in Popular Culture

Considering mental illness affects a great amount of individuals, it is no surprise that mental illness is frequently featured in main stream and entertainment media.

It appears across all various multi-media outputs including movies, television shows, books, and music. But, mental health portrayals in entertainment are often specifically created solely for the purpose of entertainment.

“The worst stereotypes come out in such depictions: mentally ill individuals as incompetent, dangerous, slovenly, undeserving, the portrayals serve to distance 'them' from the rest of 'us.'”

-Stephen Hinshaw, professor of psychology at the University of California–Berkeley

Regardless of the representations are accurate or inaccurate, they start a much needed conversation about mental health.

Inaccurate Portrayal: Split (2016)

The movie Split is an American psychological horror thriller depicting a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). The man, Kevin Wendell Crumb, has 23 different personalities that plague his mind all waiting for their turn "in the light", or their time to control him.

Kevin, creating the distinct personalities to cope with abuse he suffered at the hand of his mother, kidnaps three young girls and locks them in a basement.

Throughout the movie Kevin's different personalities take over at different points. The kidnapped girls come to pick up on his dissociative identity disorder and try to con and swoon certain parts of his personality.

Overall, the movies depicts individuals with dissociative identity disorder as being extremely violent and superhuman. By the end of the film, a 24th personality emerges named, "the beast", which seems to have an immense amount of impossible human strength and a desire for human flesh.

The film split inaccurately represents individuals with dissociative identity disorder by portraying them as violent and frightening, adding to further shaming of those suffering with the illness.

Innacurate portrayal: Halloween (1978)

Halloween, an american slasher film, is the first of many installments in the popular franchise. The movie follows Laurie Strode a girl who is stalked by Michael Myers, a man who escapes from a mental institution. The film is a perfect example of the "psycho escapes from a mental asylum and goes on a killing spree" film genre.

Although the movie never specifically mentions or discusses Myer's mental illness, the audience is led to believe that he has some type of psychosis.

Psychopathy and psychosis are a real disorder, but according to the American Psychological Association (2014), only about 3.5% of individuals are diagnosed with psychosis. These individuals count for a very small portion of the population. You're chances of encountering a psychopathic person on a killing spree are almost zero to none.

Inaccurate portrayal: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

The film, Silver Linings Playbook, is an American romantic comedy-drama, staring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.

Cooper plays, Patrizio "Pat" Solitano, Jr, a man who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Pat, trying to get his estranged wife back , agrees to enter a dance competition with Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence). In return, Maxwell will assist Pat in winning back his wife. It should turn out well!

Throughout the movie, Pat and Tiffany bond over dance and Pat seems to be "cured" through his connection with Tiffany.

This presents the public with in inaccurate representation of treatment of mental illness. It is not by learning to tango, but rather an intense and difficult lifestyle change filled with therapy and medications for those diagnosed to receive some type of relief. In fact, most mental illness do not have a "cure" at all.

Accurate Portrayal: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

A Beautiful Mind is an American biographical drama based on the life of Nobel Prize winner, John Nash. The film stars Russell Crowe as Nash and follows his journey through his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

This film represented individuals with scizophrenia in a light that not most films do. Instead of portraying Nash as a violent and maddened monster ready to snap at any moment, the movie depicts Nash as a relatable human. As the viewer, you get an accurate representation of Nash's symptoms such as his auditory and visual hallucinations, and his inability to maintain relationships.

At the same time of viewing an accurate portrayal of his paranoid schizophrenia, you get a sense of humanization which makes it easier to sympathize with Nash. Despite his illness, he is extremely intelligent giving him more humanistic qualities.

Accurate Portrayal: To The Bone (2017)

The film, To the Bone, is an American drama staring Lily Collins as a girl, Elen suffering from anorexia. The movie, that appeared on Netflix, accurately portrays the symptoms and experiences unique to those suffering with anorexia.

On top of the accurate portrayal of Elen's symptoms such as excessively counting calories, dressing in baggy clothing, and her preoccupation with losing weight, the film includes Elen's treatment process. She enters a home with others suffering from eating disorders. This home is filled with various amounts of individuals ranging from males to even young children. This covers all representations of people with anorexia. Mental illness does not discriminate!

Ellen's journey through treatment provides a sincere and accurate portrayal providing hope to those suffering.

13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why is a web-based American mystery teen drama appearing on Netflix in 2017. The show is based off of the 2007 novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, written by Jay Asher.

The show revolves around Hannah Baker, a high school student who commits suicide and leaves behind tapes which explain thirteen reasons why she chose to end her life.

The popularity of the show caused a lot of discussion and uproar about the portrayal of mental illness on the screen. The main argument of those who oppose the show is that it 'glamorizes' suicide, provides no option of receiving help, and it can be triggering to those suffering from depression.

However, the show opens the door about discussion of difficult topics such as depression and suicide. It allows parents and friends to recognize the warning signs such as Hannah's decrease in socialization, lack of self-confidence, and began losing interest in activities she once found enjoyable.

"First of all, 13 Reasons Why has opened the door (link is external)for families and communities to discuss life as a teenager in the 21st century. Specifically, the kinds of social pressures that occur for some children and teens - the micro-aggressions found in hallways, school buses, lunch rooms, online and otherwise, as well as traumatic issues of bullying, social injustice, sexual assault and suicide"

-Psychology Today

"Finally, 13 Reasons Why has sparked a surge of calls worldwide to suicide and mental health hotlines (link is external), perhaps helping many viewers recognize their need for professional mental health care"

-Psychology Today

Mental Illness and Parables

A parable is a way of story telling through the use of metaphors.
“We must, in other words, hear that parable of Jesus with ancient Jewish ears attuned to the Torah and not with modern American ears attuned to Wall Street.”

–The Power of Parable, Crossan

This except from The Power of Parable can be directly relates to how the public should view the portrayal of mental illness in popular culture. Just as Crossan explained we must read the parable of Compatibility of Law with Reason "with Jewish ears attuned to the Torah and not with modern American ears attuned to Wall Street", we must also think this way when we consume media. In order to accurately receive the portrayal, we must attune our ears and mind to the individual suffering with the disease. We must not watch with our own biases in tune. Rather, step into the mentally ill persons shoes and listen as they would.

Mental Illness in Biblical Times

"Stigmatization of disability has a long history, reaching back millennia and paralleling evolution of the conceptualization of disability described above. Throughout early history, persons with disabilities were shadowy figures living on the fringes of society or explicitly isolated (e.g., in “leper colonies,” “madhouses,” “insane asylums”). “Normals” feared contamination or taint from interacting with disabled per- sons. The implied moral culpability of persons with disabilities for their impairments"

-Matt Stanford PhD- Mental Health Grace Alliance, 2011

Both abnormal thoughts and behaviors are well-documented throughout the Bible. Although the categorization and recognition of mental illness was not yet discovered in the time of Jesus, behavior mirroring such disorders are apparent. Individuals exhibiting strange behavior, just as they are today, were stigmatized, shamed, shunned from society, labeled as 'insane' or 'mad', and seen as having and overall personal weakness.

A specific example of 'madness' in the Bible being referred to as 'foolish' can be seen in Proverbs 26: 18-19

New Testament

Jesus Restores a Demon-posessed man: Mark 5: 1-20

In this particular story in the Bible, Jesus performs an exorcism on a man who is possessed by a demon. When Jesus asks the man his name, he responds, "My name is Legion, for we are many" (5:9). This description accurately resembles some type of Dissociative Identity Disorder although it cannot be confirmed. Either way, the man was shunned from society for being 'insane' and was pushed to the outskirts of town.

"So individuals displaying abnormal thoughts and behaviors, the mentally ill, were clearly known throughout biblical history. Today those same abnormal thoughts and behaviors have been categorized into a set of specific mental disorders for which many effective interventions and treatments have been developed. Mental health research and practice have made significant strides in relieving the mental and physical suffering of those afflicted with mental illness"

-Matt Stanford PhD.

Works Cited

American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, Web, 14 Apr. 2018.

Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable. New York: Harper One, 2012. 105. Print.

Friedman, Michael, PhD. "The Stigma of Mental Illness Is Making Us Sicker." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 13 May 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2018.

"Mental Illness in the Bible." The Grace Alliance. Web. 16 Apr. 2018.

NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2017. Web, 14 Apr. 2018.

Serani, Deborah, Psy. D. “13 Reasons Why: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 16 May 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2018.

The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.


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