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December 28, 2017
by Tracey Block

Putting the Spotlight on Mental Illnesses

December 28, 2017 01:43 by Tracey Block  [About the Author]

Does the movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde provide a true depiction of someone suffering from a mental illness?  Some would argue that even in its first appearance on the screen in 1920 as a silent movie--it provided an illustration of dissociative identity disorder or DID (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder).

Others argue against its depiction of DID as too far of a stretch from reality. But regardless of opposing opinions, movie and television analysts do at least agree that the depiction of people with mental health disorders can be traced back more than 100 years.

Now, in the 21st century, with greater recognition of the numbers of people living with mental health challenges, researchers and general audiences alike are watching movies and TV programs with a more critical eye. And as a result, the representation of people with mental illnesses may finally be improving, providing viewers with less stereotypes and more reality.

In March 2000, U.S. television station ABC broadcast the first episode of what it thought would be ground-breaking television; an overnight success. But from its first airing to its second--and last--aired episode, Wonderland was instead a controversy waiting to happen. The program focused on the psychiatric ward of a fictional hospital in Manhattan, and illustrated a variety of patients with an array of mental illnesses, as well as the private and professional lives of the doctors and staff who treated them. The advertised innovation was in providing the stories from the perspectives of both the patients and the hospital staff.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., in her article for, described a scene from one of the two Wonderland episodes that aired in 2000. “A man who suffers from schizophrenia goes on a shooting spree in Times Square and later stabs a pregnant physician in the stomach,” she wrote. 

“The series portrayed a bleak life for people with mental illness and groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) criticized its theme of hopelessness,” wrote Tartakovsky. The series was canceled due to its poor ratings, and as a result of the criticisms it received early on.

According to Tartakovsky, stereotypes depicted by the media, whether subtle or “in your face”, of people with mental illnesses are often the first places people gain an education about the issues. “What they do see can color their perspective, leading them to fear, avoid and discriminate against individuals with mental illness,” she explained.

“These myths don’t just damage public perceptions; they also affect people with mental illness. In fact, the fear of stigma can prevent individuals from seeking treatment.”

In her article, Tartakovsky quoted Otto Wahl, Ph.D, professor of psychology at the University of Hartford and the author of Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness, who said that unlike the archaic media representations, “the vast majority of people with mental illness are ordinary individuals who go to work and try to enjoy their lives”.

In his 2013 article for the Harvard Political Review, Matthew Disler wrote that since the beginning of filmmaking, mental illness has often been misrepresented. “More accurate portrayals that emphasize a person’s battles with psychiatric illness and hindered social interactions do a much better job,” he explained.

Disler cited the 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as an example of the erroneous behavior of filmmakers--simultaneously challenging and yet still propagating the stigmas surrounding mental illnesses. “A 1983 study showed that university students who had viewed the film [Cuckoo’s Nest] subsequently perceived psychiatric illness in a more negative light,” he wrote.

Disler challenged Hollywood to help reverse the stigmas. Given the abundance of movies and television programs representing mental health issues, it is obvious that “psychiatric problems provide good stories,” Disler said. “Media can also be used as a tool to help raise awareness about mental health issues . . . [and] paint a portrait of a person beyond their illness.”

Writer Laura Greenstein, in her article last week for the NAMI, provided her most recent list of what she believes are accurate depictions of people with mental health issues. “Because mental illness affects millions of Americans, it’s an extremely relatable theme,” she wrote. For those in the business who don’t have lived experience, it can be difficult to depict.”

Nevertheless, for Greenstein, there are indeed “a few movies that get it right”. Some of the titles from her full list of recommendations include:

  • A Beautiful Mind (2001)—based on a true story that highlights and “beautifully captures the challenges” of the life of a mathematical savant who lives with schizophrenia.
  • Matchstick Men (2003)—“the honest depiction of the rituals and behaviors” of a con artist/father who struggles with debilitating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)—in which a youth checks into a psychiatric ward and is placed with adults who “are not portrayed as mad or insane” but are in a safe place receiving help for their struggles.
  • Infinitely Polar Bear (2015)—“a meaningful portrayal of . . . a father with bipolar disorder . . . [and] how families can be impacted by mental illness”.



Disler, M., (December 27, 2013). Harvard Political Review. Out of the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Greenstein, L., (December 20, 2017). National Alliance on Mental Health. The Best Movies About Mental Health.

Percival, A., (May 17, 2017). HuffPost UK Edition. Denise Welch On Why She Hopes Her Mental Health Film 'Black Eyed Susan' Will Change Perceptions Of Depression And Of Her.

Tartakovsky, M., M.S., (Retrieved on December 27, 2017). Media’s Damaging Depictions of Mental Illness.



About the Author

Tracey Block
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