Film: Mental Health on the Silver Screen
Disclaimer: This article discusses mental health issues and depictions in film, which includes a section on depression and suicide. If you or someone you know is dealing with any of the topics discussed and wish to speak to someone who can help, you can call Western’s 24/7 emergency services line at 360-650-3164, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or you can text the 24/7 Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as of 2015 approximately 18.5 percent of adults in the United States experience mental illness in a given year. The study also found 4 percent of adults experience a serious mental illness in a year that interferes or limits their life in some way.
With mental illness being such a prevalent issue in society, it can often be found as a plot device used in film genres, particularly horror and drama films. In an article for VICE News, Jules Suzdaltsev said many classic horror films use mental illness because it can be a convenient explanation for violence, and in most films that portray mental illness, real life pathologies are abandoned in favor of melodramatic storytelling.
Two themes that can be found within films that take on mental health are depression and people with mental health illnesses are inherently violent. Within the past year, two movies that took on these themes individually were “Christine” and “Split.”
In “Christine,” Rebecca Hall plays the titular character Christine Chubbuck, a TV news anchor in Florida during the 1970s. The movie is based off the true story of Chubbuck, who died by suicide on-air in 1974.
The film starts out with a title card simply stating the movie is “Based on true events.” Viewers are not told they will see the struggles of someone with depression, nor are they warned of the fact the movie will recreate the events of the day Chubbuck died, which the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide warns against.
Recently, Netflix released a show named “13 Reasons Why” that told the story of a young teen who dies by suicide. Marissa Martinelli writing for Slate News said the show disregards established guidelines for depicting suicide, including the widely accepted Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, which exist to reduce the likelihood of suicide contagion within news media, but can also be applied to film or TV.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suicide contagion comes from the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, circle of friends or through media reports.
While there has been extensive research done about the effects of celebrity death and suicide contagion, Patrick Devitt writing for Scientific American notes research into fictional portrayals of suicide in TV and film is more complicated, and no direct correlation has been found yet.
Mental Illness and Violence
- Night Shyamalan released his newest film “Split” in 2016 where James McAvoy plays a character with 23 known and distinct personalities. The tagline of the movie being three girls captured by McAvoy’s character will have to escape from an unknown, dangerous twenty-fourth personality.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines dissociative identity disorder as a disorder that is characterized by a single subject alternating between multiple identities. People with the disorder can experience gaps in memory and women are more likely to be diagnosed, as they are more likely to present with dissociative symptoms. These symptoms can sometimes develop as a way of dealing with trauma.
While McAvoy’s character in the film did experience childhood trauma, the presentation of the disorder in a film in the horror genre does little to help public knowledge.
In an interview with The Guardian, Dr. Simone Reinders, a neuroscientist who studies the disorder, said movies like “Split” can be extremely damaging because they make it seem like patients with dissociative identity disorder are violent and prone to doing bad things. She said there is already stigma and skepticism surrounding the disorder and worries how the general public will now see patients with the disorder.
With the prevalence of mental illness in today’s society, films that are released may need to adjust the way they tell stories that deal with mental health topics to prevent misunderstandings about and misrepresentations of the issues so many people struggle with.
Films mentioned in this post can be found on Netflix and Amazon.
Illustration by Shannon DeLurio