Movies about mental health: Did they do it right?

Mental health is a touchy topic to tackle in any media. The content is expected to raise awareness without romanticizing the experiences of those affected by it. It should also be realistic, but also sensitive to how it should depict suicide and other nuances. (See: 13 Reasons Why)

According to BBC, several movies have made the mistake of conflating mental illness to the concept of “madness” in horror films. This then perpetuates the continuing stigma that “crazy people” are violent and mental health is a supernatural phenomenon. Likewise, they misrepresent women who need help as someone who simply has “irrational behavior” and the tendency to do evil things.

Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we decided to list down some films that portrayed mental health, and how they successfully or failed to destroy stigmas surrounding certain conditions.

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

This film, starring Winona Ryder, was adapted from Susanna Kaysen’s book of the same title where she talks about being in a psychiatric hospital after her borderline personality disorder diagnosis. It also shows Susanna’s relationships with the other patients, especially her close friendship with Lisa Rowe, a diagnosed sociopath.

Positive: When Girl, Interrupted premiered in the late ’90s, it was applauded for its exploration of mental health, and how the audience could relate to Susanna’s character in some way. The American Mental Health Foundation also noted that it depicted “the act of institutionalization versus its need” through the lens of feminist theory.

Negative: The source material was criticized as having a detached perspective on mental health. The movie also created “madwoman” stereotypes. According to film review site B*tch Flicks, it portrayed mentally ill women is “hypersexual, dangerous, amoral, or inherently unfeminine.” Likewise, it’s clear the film made the antagonist the “crazier” and more violent patient in the ward (Lisa). While Susanna, the protagonist, is the image of the “perfect woman,” making the viewer question if she even needs psychiatric treatment.

Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan revolves around ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) and her determination to get the lead role in Swan Lake. The movie shows her deteriorating mental state as the pressures of perfection and the fear of getting replaced get to her head.

Positive: Black Swan gives you a background on why Nina is always striving for perfection. Her mother is an implied narcissist who imposes her dreams on Nina, and she’s not given the chance to be an adult with her own free will. All these factors, including her dream of dancing in Swan Lake, results to her psychological breakdown throughout the film. It also gave the viewers an eerie look at Nina’s psyche as she fails to distinguish what’s real and what’s not.

Negative: Overall, no complaints about the movie’s portrayal of mental illness. What I do notice is how regular people would argue whether Nina’s condition is schizophrenia or psychosis. This brings up the importance of asking a professional about certain symptoms and not solely depend on the opinions of netizens and medical sites.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is considered a coming-of-age comedy about a 16-year-old boy named Craig (Keir Gilchrist). He voluntarily goes to a psychiatric hospital to seek help after attempting suicide at the Brooklyn Bridge. The film then focuses on the ward’s everyday activities, which aren’t as scary or bleak as mainstream media portrays.

Positive: The late Ned Vizzini, who wrote the autobiographical novel of the same name, succeeded in creating a narrative that mental illness isn’t always dark and scary. The film shows Craig and his wardmates living regularly in the hospital, and interact with each other like they’re friendly neighbors. It also touches on the fact that depression in teens can happen because of the pressure to do well in school.

Negative: Because of the film’s humor and its artistic shots, many found its portrayal of mental health problematic. Since Craig is only admitted in the ward for five days, the film sets out to make his life easier and better, while the other patients are seen as seen as quirky pawns in the main story. The Guardian also pointed out: “This cutesy sub-Cuckoo’s-Nest indie indulges in what it imagines to be the quirkily cerebral romance of mental illness, in which psychiatric institutions contain a gallery of patients with picturesque problems, all there to provide support to the adorably vulnerable main character.”

The Babadook (2014)

This Australian horror film is about a grieving widow who’s raising her son alone. She later discovers a book called Mister Babadook, which talks about a shadow-like figure who torments its victims after they become aware of it. True enough, the Babadook terrorizes their home, and the mother is blamed for hurting her son even though it wasn’t her doing.

Positive: The Babadook is not just a horror film, it’s a metaphor for the mother’s grief and depression. When she’s possessed by the figure, her resentment toward her son (brought on by the death of her husband while they were driving to hospital to give birth) intensifies and her behavior becomes more grim the more she holds on to the grief. The Artifice also noted that Mister Babadook is a representation on the stereotype of mental illness being made up. In the film, you see it as this frightening entity that could kill the mother and her son; while the people around her dismiss her mental breakdowns.

Negative: There’s nothing negative about the movie’s portrayal of mental illness. Even movie critics were reportedly stunned.

Split (2016)

Split is a horror-suspense film starring James McAvoy. It follows a teenage girl who was kidnapped by a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID), or more commonly known as having multiple personalities. The man’s demeanor changes from mild to violent depending on who’s “in the light.”

Positive: It’s currently one of the most successful films to tackle DID, and it was M. Night Shyamalan’s first #1 film in 10 years. Many would say the attention is because of McAvoy’s performance of the various personalities.

Negative: Mental health experts had been critical of Split since its release because of its terrifying portrayal of a man with DID. In the film, he kidnaps and murders people. This already raises so many red flags because it trivializes the condition and creates a stereotype that people with DID have evil intentions. As psychotherapist Elizabeth Howell told Healthline, “[The] film raises the potential for dangerous attitudes to emerge and for people with the illness to be damaged.”


Art by Tricia Guevara

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