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The State of Mental Health in Movies

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Please also note that this story contains spoilers for the movies “Demonic,” “Nobody,” “Till Death” and ” Hypnotic.”

The stigma surrounding mental illness seems to be a hot topic issue at the forefront of many mental health conversations. Negative assumptions, inaccurate perceptions, gross misrepresentations and outright caricatures often overshadow these diagnoses, making it harder for people to seek treatment out of fear of judgment. One needs not look any further than the portrayal of mental illness and mental health related issues in recent movies in order to see that stigma is still very much alive and strong today.

Though I admittedly always try to first and foremost appreciate movies completely at their face value, as someone who regularly writes about mental health topics and advocates for the mentally ill, it is difficult not to notice when stigma rears its ugly head on the silver screen. All too often, whenever mental illness is brought up in cinema, those branded with that diagnosis are portrayed as either a dangerous monster or a pathetic joke. Rarely are the mentally ill ever portrayed as regular people who are merely struggling with a fairly common health problem that needs treatment. Perhaps even more tragically, serious mental health topics are often flung about as plot devices and grossly misrepresented solely for the sake of furthering another character’s story.

One such example of a poor representation of mental illness is “Demonic,” a 2021 movie by Neill Blomkamp. Though my husband and I are fans of much of his other work, the representation of mental illness in this movie reeked of old fashioned stigma. The character of Angela is introduced simultaneously as severely mentally ill, dangerous and dabbling with the occult, as if her illness itself is demonic in nature. Every time Angela’s diagnosis is broached in the movie, it is overshadowed by stark reminders that she is a monster because of her condition. There seems to be little effort made to separate the mental illness from the demonic entities, leaving viewers feeling like they are so intertwined that they are one and the same.

When not displayed as dangerous or a monster, the mentally ill are often portrayed as the punchline to a joke, as is the case with the 2021 movie “Nobody,” starring Bob Odenkirk. The movie opens with Odenkirk’s character Hutch going through the motions of a seemingly unfulfilling, monotonous, humdrum life. The viewer can feel his depression emanating off the screen.  Unfortunately though, his depression is often used as a punchline and he is treated by many of the other characters as a joke. He is seen as a sad and pathetic man who never reached his potential, who is expected by his wife’s family to find a way to suck it up and do better rather than offered any real encouragement or support. Though an otherwise entertaining action movie, it was sad to see his depression used as a recurring joke by those who clearly did not know him. His character deserved better than to be treated as a punchline.  However, thanks to the stigma surrounding mental illness, both characters in movies and people in real life are frequently mocked and mistreated.

Another 2021 movie that hit rather poorly with its portrayal of mental health issues was “Till Death.” In the movie, the protagonist Emma, played by Megan Fox, goes to a remote cabin with her husband to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Through a series of flashbacks, the viewer sees that not only is the husband controlling and borderline abusive, but that Emma is having an affair with one of her husband’s associates. After Emma and her husband are settled in at the secluded cabin, he reveals that he knows about her tryst before handcuffing himself to her and killing himself out of revenge for her disloyalty to their marriage. His suicide is used solely as a plot device to push her into an epic battle for survival. As someone who has not only lost people I cared about to suicide but who has also made attempts myself, to callously and shallowly portray suicide merely as the ultimate revenge and punishment for an unfaithful spouse felt wrong on so many levels.

Even the portrayal of mental health practitioners has not escaped the overwhelming scope of stigma in movies today. Whether portrayed as irresponsible, downright dangerous or completely inept, a shroud of distrust often lingers over those who treat mental illnesses and disorders in cinema.  How are those who are dealing with mental health struggles of their own in real life supposed to be comfortable seeking medical treatment when many of the representations they see of practitioners on the silver screen remind them that these doctors are not dependable nor trustworthy?

Once again, Blomkamp’s “Demonic” immediately comes to mind. The doctors in the movie are portrayed as so obsessed about reaching within Angela’s mind that they repeatedly and haphazardly put Angela’s estranged daughter Carly’s mental wellbeing and her life itself at risk. Any true mental health practitioner would not jeopardize the mental wellbeing of one patient for the sake of another, nor would they encourage someone to endanger themselves on numerous occasions. Not only do Angela’s doctors convince Carly to participate in procedures they know to be unsafe, but they also lure Carly to a site of a traumatic event from her youth under the guise that it may help her mother.

Another 2021 movie that portrayed a mental health practitioner in a vastly negative light was “Hypnotic.” In this movie, a woman named Jenn goes to see a therapist who specializes in hypnotism in the hope that he can help her get over her last relationship that ended when she lost her baby. Over time, the therapist is revealed to be obsessed with Jenn due to her resemblance to his late wife. He misuses hypnotism to murder Jenn’s friends and to push her to the attempted murder of her ex-fiancé. Though at face value, it was admittedly a decent thriller, when viewed through a mental health lens, especially as someone with a history of mental health struggles combined with a lot of trust issues, it was very unsettling to watch. Unfortunately though, there are many movies like this still being made today where mental health practitioners are painted as unbalanced and dangerous. When it becomes a common theme in cinema, how are prospective patients not supposed to be wary of seeing a doctor themselves?

Perhaps even more discouraging than when a mental health professional is presented as callous, irresponsible or dangerous is when they are portrayed as completely inept solely for comic relief. A good example of this is the 2021 movie “Dangerous,” starring Scott Eastwood and Mel Gibson. Eastwood’s character Dylan is introduced as someone with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. Though many of the other characters in the film repeatedly refer to and regard Dylan as being insane and dangerous, the movie did a tremendous job of displaying a difficult diagnosis gingerly. Not only is Eastwood’s character taking his treatment seriously by taking his medication dutifully and touching base with his doctor on a regular basis, but at one point his character explains to his nephew that he isn’t bad, but rather he just sees the world differently. Credit should always be given where it is due. As much as Eastwood’s handling of his character hit the mark, Mel Gibson’s Dr. Alderwood missed it. Though the character is described as eccentric in many of the movie reviews, perhaps scatterbrained and inept would be more fitting. As Dylan’s doctor, he is outright dismissive of law enforcement’s involvement in his patient’s life and only vaguely attentive to what is going on with his patient whenever he reaches out for help. When considered at face value, the character makes for entertaining comic relief, but when considered through a mental health lens, I would have to agree with Dr. Alderwood’s own assessment in the movie that he’s probably going to lose his license.

While it is admittedly encouraging that mental health is more readily portrayed today in movies, it is clear that these depictions are still heavily fueled by the stigma surrounding mental illness. Yes we have come a long way, especially in regards to representation, but there is still a long way to go. Perhaps one day a more accurate representation of mental health diagnoses and practitioners will be normalized, but until then we must continue to acknowledge when movies miss their mark. While we can still enjoy them at face value for the cinematic artwork and entertainment that they are, at the same time we must remember that they are not an accurate portrayal of those living with or treating mental illness. Going forward, we must also strive as a society to do better, so that in the future the mentally ill and their doctors are more accurately perceived as real people and not caricatures or unrealistic stereotypes.

Header image via “Nobody” movie’s Facebook

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