Falsities of Mental Illness Portrayed by the Media: Specifically Movies and TV Shows

Mental illness is a very serious subject that is often unfortunately depicted incorrectly in both movies and TV shows. Although my own blog’s intention is to discuss the build-up of mental illness in characters both movies and TV shows, I have decided to take a different approach to this particular assignment. I have gathered information and have done some research on ways in which mental illness is displayed incorrectly in both movies and TV shows. Whether it be that mental illness is over sensualized or revolves around any stigmas, there is enough misuses in media for it to be seen as a problem.

The representation of mental illness in movies and TV shows are critical. The reason why they are so critical is because false portrayals of characters with mental illness can feed into false stigmas. While also making people who actually have mental illness doubt themselves and limits their chances of seeking professional help. Descriptions of mental illness and descriptions of those that have mental illness are distorted throughout media. The reason for these distortions are the inaccuracies, exaggerations and misinformation that we see in our everyday lives. According to a study from the Journal of Health Communications back in 2008, the way that fictional characters perceive and handle mental illness can directly affect the way that people in real life handle that same mental illness.

The movie “Thirteen” is about a young girl who was essentially being ignored at home and finds other means of filling up her time. She befriends a ‘bad girl’ and together they go on a road leading to destruction. Very quickly she starts straying away from her innocence and falling victim to some very serious situations. By first glance, the movie might make it seem that the main girls decision to befriend the ‘bad girl’ is what set her life on a path of destruction. Though, it can be argued that her upbringing is what changed her and brought on the possibility of having borderline personality disorder.

More often than not, characters in movies and TV shows often lack the symptoms that people who are really mentally ill go through. It is difficult to create interesting fictional characters and one way that people go about creating interesting or exciting characters is by giving them some form of mental illness. The problem with this is that many people are undereducated in the domain of mental illness and end up insinuating how it would feel to have a certain mental illness rather than taking the time to research the symptoms and learning how people with these types of disorders act.

Another common occurrence in both movies and TV shows is that, therapists and other mental health care professionals are more often than not portrayed as undereducated or having a lack of knowledge in their profession. Specifically, media images of psychiatrists often show them as crazed, cruel, or unethical. As an example, Hannibal Lecter was a very evil and peculiar psychiatrist. He would eat people’s faces off and yet, he still gave Silence of the Lamb’s Clarice Starling moral advice.

There have been multiple instances in movies and TV shows that poke fun at characters mental illness. Taking a serious subject out of context can dramatically skew the gravity of a situation. Health Communication’s 2011 case study shows that allowing arguably harmful actions to occur with no repercussions can alter the perception of a certain situation and can convince viewers to take a serious situation lightly. Feelings are difficult and many people struggle in coping with their own. Reader’s Digest found the concept of people laughing during uncomfortable situations particularly interesting and spoke to professional counselor and board-certified coach, Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez about it. Hopkins-Alvarez says, “Sometimes people laugh when something is sad because they are trying to deflect going deeper into their emotions.” Mental illness is a deep and complex topic; the results won’t always be pretty.

In some cases, mental illness is portrayed as a sort of gift to the character. There are cases in which a character is in a particular profession or given a task that there mental illness seemingly helps with. According to a 2017 study in Journal of Health Communication, when mental illnesses are perceived as beneficial to a character, this is just another way of trivializing them. By showing the ways that mental illnesses helps fictional characters function has the opposite affect in reality. This promotes misconceptions that mental illness treatments and policy decisions do not need to be taken seriously by the general public.

The way NA and AA groups are portrayed in movies and TV shows is extremely alarming. The goal of both of these groups and other groups revolved around helping people through their addictions and make the members of these groups lives more satisfying. In both the TV show “Dexter” and the movie “Fight Club,” the idea of these groups are seen as fantasy rather than reality. In “Fight Club,” the main character uses the groups he joins for his own personal enjoyment and ends up finding and hooking up with another member of the group. Similarly, the main character in “Dexter,” uses his group to lessen his guilt for the criminal acts he partakes in throughout the show and ends up dating another member.

The ways that the majority of movies and TV shows portray mental illness is disgraceful. Mental illness is a serious subject and people who have them in real life shouldn’t be subjected to the criticism and stigmas that misconceptions promote. There are few TV shows and movies that got it right, but it is still a work in progress.

Along with that, mental illness affects everyone in different ways and is not always detected in the same ways. Movies and TV shows are ever-growing and will forever portray characters that could be seen as mentally ill. Which is why I believe that creating a discussion about these characters is beneficial. Without allowing room for judgment, misconceptions, stigmas or inappropriate humor involving mental illness, I believe talking about the way mentally ill characters are portrayed in movies and TV shows can be educational. This allows viewers to meditate on patterns of mental illness and raise awareness of ways in which mental illness portrayed by the media.

Published by pausolivia

I am a student journalist at Columbia College of Chicago. Over the years I have become interested in psychology and the way that characters are written in movies and TV shows. Combining both of these passions, I will be honing in on writing about characters inarguably with personality disorders and characters that resemble characteristics of people with personality disorders. In my blog I will include a section that is strictly factual and gives a definition for each personality disorder that will be discussed. I will also include a section that describes characters that have a personality disorder written into their role as the character and give evidence of their disorder. I will also include a section where I will give characters a diagnosis of my own and provide evidence to back up my claims. This section will be viewed more as a discussion and viewers reading my blog can add to my diagnosis and either agree with or dispute my claims. I will also encourage my viewers to research characters that they think have personality disorders and share their reasoning behind them. I will focus only on personality disorders, but I will make it known that mental illness is a very serious topic and should not be seen as otherwise.

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