Heath Ledger, who played the Joker in “The Dark Night,” described his character in that movie as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.” Many movie villains are characterized as having psychiatric issues to explain their malicious behavior. Television and film perpetuate dramatic and harmful stereotypes surrounding mental health disorders.
This misrepresentation in film and media creates unrealistic perceptions of mental illness. As a result, society is more likely to fear or misunderstand individuals with psychological disorders when, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness points out, “Most people with serious mental illness are never violent toward others and are more often victims of violence than perpetrators.”
Mentally ill individuals are often portrayed as unpredictable, violent or sometimes evil in movies and television shows. According to Heather Stuart, a professor at Queen’s University in Ontario, one in four mentally ill television and film characters kill someone, and over half inflict harm on another person. The stereotype that all people receiving psychiatric care have murderous intentions is supported in many films because movie creators want to shock viewers with blood and gore.
Audiences easily let these dramatized images seep into their real-life perceptions of mental health disorders. Consequently, people with mental illness are further ostracized and feared.
However, violent dramatizations are just one example of the many misrepresentations of mental health in movies and television.
Many aspects of entertainment media glamorize suicide and fail to convey that many suicides are related to psychiatric illness. For instance, the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” highlights the suicide of a teenage girl, but the show never mentions whether she is experiencing a mental health issue such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 90% of individuals who died by suicide “had shown symptoms of a mental health condition.” Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” and many other shows and movies use suicide as a dramatic plot device when in reality, it is a permanent action that is often the effect of a complex psychological issue.
Some may argue that the inclusion of topics like suicide in entertainment media spreads awareness surrounding mental health care. However, while audiences may be able to recognize these concepts, they will not necessarily be more informed since their knowledge is coming from Hollywood dramatizations and not facts.
Additionally, movies and television often villainize mental health professionals for dramatic effect. This creates fear and unnecessary skepticism toward their medical practices and methods.
For example, electroconvulsive shock treatment is a medical procedure that is almost always misrepresented when included in entertainment media. It can be a safe and effective treatment, but it is often portrayed as an abusive form of punishment or means to control a character with mental illness. Research has shown that electroconvulsive therapy continues to carry a stigma.
Due to the gruesome portrayals of psychiatrists in movies and television series, individuals with psychological disorders can be wary of receiving the treatment they need. The stigma surrounding psychiatric doctors creates public scrutiny of their practices and contributes to the lack of access to mental health services.
The entertainment industry is largely responsible for the stereotypes and prejudices directed toward mental illness. To filmmakers, exploiting mental illness is a necessary evil that brings in ratings and attention. As consumers of entertainment media, it is our job to think critically and be mindful that on-screen portrayals do not equate to reality.
Jenna Yingling is in grade 12 at Conestoga Valley High School.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate help, contact the following organizations:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, suicidepreventionlifeline.org, 800-273-8255.
Those who are deaf or hard of hearing can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline via TTY at 800-799-4889.
Lancaster Crisis Intervention, 717-394-2631.
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