Tuesday, July 7, 2015

DOWN with Misguided Stigmas, UP with Realism and Complex Characters! Celebrating Progress in Cinematic and Literary Interpretations of Mental Illness By Shelby Tansil

By Shelby Tansil

DR. BAYLOR: I’m sorry, I didn’t bring milk. How do you take your coffee?
ANITA: I wait ‘til the Starbucks guy’s back is turned – then I take it.
 -From Ellen Orchid’s play, Prescriptions

 For years, negative portrayals of people with mental illnesses in films and literature have contributed to the stigma of mental illness. Many horror and thriller stories, such as the movie Gothika and the book-turned-movie Shutter Island, have been set in mental health institutions. A fair portion of these stories also feature patients as villains or other threatening figures. By associating mental disorders with violence and fear, these films and works of literature portray mental illness in a negative light. Yet, as Dr. Danny Wedding points out:   

 Perhaps the most common myth is that people with mental illness are dangerous and violent, and the evidence is very clear that somebody with a disease like schizophrenia is far more likely to be the victim of violence than to be the perpetrator of violence. People with mental illness, homeless people who you see on the street typically, they are victims. (“We”)

Some individuals dealing with these illnesses may act violently in real life, but this is not true for the majority of people dealing with them. It’s not just a negative depiction of mental illness; it’s also an inaccurate depiction.

            Other films and literary works have used characters with mental illnesses as cheap comedic relief. We’ve seen the crazy street person shouting amusing profanities at our just-moved-
to-the-big-city-from-a-small-southern-town protagonist a thousand times. Another classic is the funny grandfather with dementia who keeps forgetting where he is to the annoyance of his family. In these characters, the sad and serious sides of mental illness are often ignored. These characters function primarily to make people laugh. When film directors or authors choose to put these characters in their works, they simplify mental illness and exploit it for the sake of entertainment. I’m not saying I don’t see the humor in some of these characters. I do. That grandfather from Freaky Friday (pictured above) is in most of my favorite scenes from that movie. But I also recognize how these characters contribute to the stigma of mental illness in our society. 

Traditionally, films and literature have also focused disproportionately on individuals with severe mental illnesses. Instead of examining a diverse range of people on the mental health spectrum, these stories have emphasized the extreme ends of the spectrum. Until relatively recent times, there have been many movies and books about serial killers, pedophiles and insane individuals who commit crimes but far fewer about people who have milder forms of mental illnesses and live relatively “ordinary” lives.  


In spite of these stigmatizing traditions, certain films and works of literature in recent years have ushered in a new era of more accurate, multifaceted portrayals of mental illness. Ellen Orchid’s play, Prescriptions, well represents this era. The play focuses on psychiatrist Dr. Renee Baylor and her patient, Anita Vitale, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention-deficit disorder. When Anita arrives at Dr. Baylor’s home to house sit for her, she discovers that she has been given the chance to help Dr. Baylor in more ways than one. Orchid uses humor and clever dialogue to create relatable characters and combat stereotypes of mental illnesses. Prescriptions breaks down barriers between those with diagnosed disorders and those without them. It questions where we draw the line between so-called “normal” emotional responses and mental illness. Orchid’s medical background (MD with a concentration in psychiatry) gives her a unique, well-informed perspective on the subject.      

This changing portrayal of mental illness is not limited to the realm of live theater. Many movies also reflect the new movement. The two protagonists of the Academy Award-winning Silver Linings
Playbook (2012) speak openly about having bipolar disorder and depression. Yet while these characters both deal with mental illnesses, the film emphasizes that this is just a small part of who they are as human beings. They also fight for their dreams, have romantic relationships, cheer for their favorite football teams and get angry at crappy book endings. Just like people living without mental illnesses. Silver Linings Playbook presents its characters with mental illnesses as lovable and relatable people. It invites audience members to connect with them, rather than distance themselves from them. Although medical professionals have argued over the accuracy of the characters’ diagnoses and actions, the film succeeds in promoting positive attitudes surrounding people with mental illnesses.  
Realistic portrayals of teens dealing with psychological disorders, especially depression, are now a popular theme in Young Adult literature. The Perks of Being a Wallflower and It’s Kind of a Funny Story are two great books about young people dealing with depression. The increased prevalence of characters with mental
illness in Young Adult fiction helps normalize it. This is very important. If young people see the heroes and heroines in their books facing mental illnesses that they themselves are struggling with, they will be less likely to feel ashamed about them and more likely to seek assistance. Perhaps these books could even help decrease the rate of teen suicide. According to a 2012 article in the New York Daily News, “The attempted suicide rate for high school students has risen from 6.3% to 7.8% in the last three years” (Neal). As suicides are often connected to depression and other mental illnesses, the de-stigmatization of mental illness in Young Adult literature could be life-saving.  

There are still a lot of movies and literary stories that promote negative attitudes toward people with mental illnesses. Heck, most of the films movies referenced in the first section of this article (i.e. Shutter Island and Freaky Friday) came out within the past decade or so. And there is no shortage of psychopathic villains in popular fiction either. My mother’s bottomless collection of murder mystery novels can attest to that. Some people might argue that not much has changed. However, works like Silver Linings Playbook and Prescriptions demonstrate there has been undeniable progress toward the de-stigmatization of mental illness in cinema and literature. People with mental illnesses have become further humanized and more relatable. This progress brings us that much closer to the de-stigmatization of mental illness in the real world.

And that is something worth celebrating.

Join me on the train that is now embarking from Celebration Station (it’s a real joy ride!) by watching this hilarious clip from The Perks of Being a Wallflower:

What are your favorite movies and/or books that feature characters with mental illnesses? Do you think they accurately portray mental illness? Why or why not? We would love to hear your responses! Comment below and tweet us at @Rianttheatre! Follow the conversation at #strawberryoneactfestival.
PRESCRIPTIONS will be performed in the Riant Theatre’s night of one- act plays titled, LOVERS, STRANGERS & WHAT SOME PEOPLE CALL FAMILY on the following dates:

August 13th (Thursday) at 8:30pm
August 18th (Tuesday) at 8:30pm
August 23rd (Sunday) at 8:30pm

You can also purchase PRESCRIPTIONS in the anthology, THE BEST PLAYS FROM THE STRAWBERRY ONE-ACT FESTIVAL: VOLUME SEVEN, which can be found online at:

Works Cited

Neal, Meghan. "1 in 12 Teens Have Attempted Suicide: Report." New York Daily News. N.p., 9
June 2012. Web.

"We Spoke to a Psychologist About Hollywood's Depictions of Mental Illness." Interview by Jules
Suzdaltsev. VICE Magazine. N.p., 21 Oct. 2014. Web.

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