poohBy: Manying Lo (Bugle Team)

Edited by: Emma Keoy (Bugle Team)

Recently, the Bedford Bugle team visited the Welcome Collection to view the ‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ exhibit. The exhibition aimed to capture and re-imagine what early institutions were like for the mentally ill through various artworks and testimonies by the doctors and patients themselves. Some of the abstract art appeared to represent how disorganised and nonsensical the thoughts of some of the patients could be. The representation of the relationship between a patient and their mental illness through art made me think about the representation of mental illness in other forms of media.

Unfortunately, mental illness and its issue are over-sensationalised in pop culture and daily life. Violence and crime in movies commonly arise due to the actions of a villain with some sort of mental illness (for example The Silence of the Lambs, 1991; American Psycho, 2000); even the news consistently focuses on negative events, often to procure and maintain interest. The representation of the mentally ill in media can be inaccurate, exaggerated and misleading, and those with mental health problems are often presented as peculiar, different and dangerous (Klin & Lemish, 2008).

Because the misrepresentation of mental illness is commonplace, it is important to consider whether these movies or other forms of media have an impact on the way we view individuals with mental health problems. Indeed, one study coded 34 Disney films and studied the way in which mental illness was referred to (for example, through the use of words such as ‘nuts’ or ‘crazy’). It was concluded that such references can potentially lead children to develop prejudicial attitudes towards those perceived as having a mental illness (Lawson & Fouts, 2004). Similar studies have found that media presentations of the mentally ill can influence attitudes significantly, however such studies are few in numbers and only a short-term effect has been investigated (Wahl, 1992). Moreover, audiences of film and media in general are not passive members who accept all that they see and hear; they are active individuals who will interpret message in a unique way and may assign their own meanings to content concerning mental illness (Anderson, 2003). On the other hand, for individuals who have mental health problems themselves, negative portrayals can impact their self-esteem, help-seeking behaviours, relationship to medication and their recovery in general (Stuart, 2006).

Not all movies have taken this dramatic approach though, other movies such as Silver Linings Playbook (2012), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010), Girl, Interrupted (1999) have arguably taken a more realistic approach to the portrayal of the experience of a mental health. Fundamentally, the media can challenge stereotypes, prejudices and generate public attention and debate (Stuart, 2006).

I think that society has been making progress with providing an accurate yet engaging portrayal of individuals with mental health problems in film. Ultimately, it is important for us to be better educated about mental health and illness, whether it be through authentic films or otherwise. This way we will be better equipped to distinguish comic stereotypes from serious mental health issues when it comes to films which distort the realities of mental illnesses, because let’s face it – everyone loves a ‘nutty’ Disney character every now and then.

Anderson, M. (2003). ‘One flew over the psychiatric unit’: mental illness and the media. Journal of psychiatric and mental health nursing, 10(3), 297-306.
Klin, A., & Lemish, D. (2008). Mental disorders stigma in the media: Review of studies on production, content, and influences. Journal of health communication, 13(5), 434-449.
Lawson, A., & Fouts, G. (2004). Mental illness in Disney animated films. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 49(5), 310-314.
Wahl, O. F. (1992). Mass media images of mental illness: A review of the literature. Journal of Community Psychology, 20(4), 343-352.
Stuart, H. (2006). Media portrayal of mental illness and its treatments. CNS drugs, 20(2), 99-106.