5 Myths About Mental Illness From Movies and TV

Hollywood films are created to entertain and not to educate. That’s all well and good, but occasionally, in their quest to entertain, some of our favorite movies portray real-life phenomenon in grossly simplified or outright wrong ways. When it comes to the mentally ill, for example, studios prefer to focus on specific types of people — mostly homicidal maniacs and geniuses — because it isn’t as interesting to watch someone living in a crappy apartment and attending therapy sessions twice a week. Let’s break the fourth wall a bit and address the issues with how Hollywood portrays mental illness. Here are five myths about mental illness commonly seen in movies and TV shows.

1. The charismatic savior

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one of the most famous films of all time to deal with mental illness, is probably the worst offender in promoting this old myth, which posits that a mentally ill person can be cured by simply spending some time with the right kind of person. Other offenders include Girl, Interrupted and Dream Team. Jack Nicholson’s riotous rebel MacMurphy manages to lighten up a whole ward of previously miserable patients because they just needed to be shown how to live! Right? In fact, that doesn’t work, or else all mental health professionals would be taking their patients on unscheduled fishing trips like MacMurphy. Mental illness isn’t something that can be cracked by a miracle cure or a magnetic personality — unfortunately.

2. Electroshock treatment is barbaric

And again, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest gets things wrong (I like the movie, really I do!), as do The Changeling and A Beautiful Mind. These films portray electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a barbaric, even abusive form of mental health treatment, practiced without consent and despite the pain it causes those who undergo it. According to Psychiatric Times, the treatment is actually painless, as practiced today, and roughly on par with general anesthesia in terms of dangerous side effects. It’s also considered an effective treatment, with roughly a 50% percent success rate in treating those with major depressive disorder. To be fair, the stigma comes partly from the historic use of higher currents of ECT without anesthesia, causing bone fractures and memory loss. ECT has gone through a series of safety modifications, so even in the ’70s, when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was made, it wouldn’t have been the horrifying experience as depicted in the film, unless it were administered incorrectly.

3. Mentally ill people are violent, homicidal

When mysterious psycho killers are roaming around, like Jason Vorhees in the Friday the 13th series, chances are they have some kind of mental illness. Many of our favorite villains are implied to be suffering from some sort of mental illness, which might lead you to believe the mentally ill tend to be violent, in one way or another. Sure, sometimes they can become violent — as can anyone — but when they are, they’re most likely to harm themselves through self-mutilation or suicide. They’re more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators. “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,” Dr. Danny Wedding told Vice.

4. Mental illness has a clear starting point

Things tend to be pretty clear-cut in most movies, thus making the story more satisfying for seemingly curing whatever was wrong with our protagonists. Even when there aren’t simple cures for mental illness in a film, there will often be a simple origin story. The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams, explains that its main character’s schizophrenia began after the untimely death of his wife, when in fact the cause is rarely so simple. Though studies have shown that stressful life events may trigger the onset of schizophrenia, The Fisher King and most movies about mental illness neglect to mention the many other factors that can cause schizophrenia, from childhood abuse and drug use, to urban dwelling and genetic predisposition. “An experience like that would lead to post-traumatic stress disorder,” noted Dr. Danny Wedding via Vice. “You wouldn’t become schizophrenic as a result. Many people develop mental illness with no history of trauma at all in their past.”

Similarly, remakes of Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween give their killers a backstory intended to explain away the origins of their homicidal evil. Just as there’s no simple cure for most mental illness, there’s no simple cause either. Schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and any number of mental illnesses can, and normally do, develop in more complex ways.

5. Mentally ill people are all savants

When they’re not murderers, they’re geniuses. Some suffering from mental illness are depicted as socially-inept persons who make up for their eccentricity with unprecedented brilliance. Audiences love this, whether we’re watching the anti-social Sherlock Holmes or the obsessive compulsive Monk, both brilliant detectives in spite of or perhaps because of their quirks. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man is a math whiz who can effortlessly count cards, and he’s autistic. According to MentalHelp.net, only 10% of mental illness sufferers can be classified as savants like Rain Man. There is some correlation between creativity and mental illness, but the vast majority of mental illness sufferers aren’t like, say, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. 

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jrindskopf

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