It’s probably best to start this article with a statistic; in the course of a year, one in four people will experience some kind of mental health issue, and by the time we reach our later adult years, one in five of us will develop some form of depression. Scary stuff, which is why as someone who comes from a family affected by mental health, I am appalled when I am assured by people that depression/anxiety disorders are not real illnesses. Even though mental health treatment and laws regarding it have developed over the last century, public perception hasn’t, and I would argue that this is largely down to media portrayal. We live in a society dominated by television, internet, and film, these provide us with information and shape our perceptions, so why are these barely able to portray an illness so common among the British public?
A huge influence on our perception of those suffering from mental health problems is the film industry. Now lets not immediately turn against me; I love films, I am proud to say I am a bit of a film nut, yet the one thing that riles me at times is how badly films can portray mental illness and how much this affects public perception of the disease. In a recent survey it was found that the film the public most identified with mental health was ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ I am not going to argue that this is not a great film, it’s one of my favourite films, but in terms of portraying modern treatment of depression, schizophrenia, it is outdated and misleading.
Due to this, public perception of mental health treatment still envisages lobotomised mutes wandering about white corridors. This ‘cuckoo’s nest’ mentality diverts people away from the reality that the large majority of those dealing with mental health problems are working men and women who struggle to balance their illness along with a full time job, and are not tied up in padded rooms in straightjackets.
Another common perception created by film and television is the idea of the ‘crazy genius’, the almost cartoonish perception that heightened intelligence corresponds to being, well, crazy. Films such as ‘A Beautiful Mind’ or television’s ‘Homeland’ portray attractive, intelligent people almost aided by their disease. This is even more annoying when they base their plot of real life events, like Russell Crowe’s portrayal of paranoid schizophrenic Nobel laureate John Nash. Such dramatic constructions are risky and enforce stereotypes upon society. Depression can affect anyone; any ages, race, gender.
I might just take a moment to highlight homeland. Again brilliantly acted, well written, great show. Homeland has even been praised for it’s portrayal of someone suffering from bipolar disorder, however I would disagree. Firstly the use of electroconvulsive therapy is viewed by medical practitioners as a last resort therapy, Carrie inexplicably undergoes the treatment without explanation nor any real need. That fact that she is, presumably, self prescribed, also undermines the struggle faced by those when on antidepressants.
Of course, all of these devices, including the use of Carrie as an unreliable narrator are dramatic techniques, as is her illness, but yet again doesn’t this distant the audience from the reality of dramatic technics? God knows some people will believe that developing bipolar disorder leads to you living a fast paced life and falling in love with a terrorist. Pfft, bloody artist license.
Despite of all this I’d like to mention somewhat of a silver lining (you’ll get the joke in a second). The recently released ‘Silver lining playbook’ features, in my opinion, a brutally realistic portrayal of what it is like to live with bipolar disorder. To summarise Bradley Cooper plays a man placed in the care of his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) after experiencing a mental breakdown and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He spends most of the film trying to win back his ex wife and along the way meets Jennifer Lawrence.Yes, that’s not the most inspiring summary, but just go see it. It’s so exposed at times its painful, but then it’s so hilariously honest at times you almost feel manic yourself.
There is a scene in which Cooper experiences a violent episode after being unable to find his wedding video, for those of us who have witnessed such violence it’s uncomfortably real. For once this isn’t a dramatic device, it the truth. However, I give the most credit to Russell in his ability to bring out ‘crazy’ in all his characters, especially those who are supposed to be in a position of authority. I love this film as it judges those who judge the vulnerable. It has even made me feel that this might be a turning point, the film even inspired Cooper to speak of his own battle with depression. There will have to be a day when Hollywood seeks help for it’s delusions about mental health.