5 Movies That Get Mental Health Issues Super Wrong
Not all psychos are Psycho...
To call Hollywood’s relationship with mental health love-hate would be an understatement. If you’re living with a mental health issue on the silver screen, you’re either a super-powered killing machine, or a loveable dote who just needs the touch of a good (usually) woman to sort them out.
For anyone who’s experienced a mental health issue, it’s hard to think of how well it could possibly translate to celluloid. The honest truth is that most mental health issues are boring af! Days after days of motivating yourself to get out of bed, shower, go to work. The months of talking therapy sessions that end just as you’re getting a hold of coping strategies (thanks, Tory funding). Endless side effects as you experiment with medication, trying to find the one combination that results in more good than harm. It’s tiring, tbh, and that’s only my experience of anxiety/depression!
Cinema is so important in shaping our perception and building our knowledge of the world, and building empathy with people whose experiences we may never share, informing the way we interact with and respond to issues.
So, seeing as M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, Split – about a serial killer with 23 different personalities (yawn) – is out this month and has caused a whole lot of controversy, I decided to take a look through some Hollywood blockbusters whose depiction of mental health issues are somewhat problematic.
Yeah, that’s right, straight off the bat I’m taking on one of cinema’s most iconic films from one of its most celebrated directors. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece tells the story of serial killer, Norman Bates, owner of the Bates Motel, who also happens to have an unhealthy obsession with his mother, and likes to stab blonde women in the shower.
Now, any storyteller with half a brain might say that Norman’s murderous instincts stem from sexual repression and cultural misogyny – he only kills what he desires. But thanks to some psycho-babble at the end, after Bates’ killing spree is brought to an end, we learn that he was technically innocent of the crimes, and that his “mother”, acting as one-half of his “split personality”, is the one with blood on her hands.
Very progressive, Fredo. Thanks for 57 years of “psycho” being used as a pejorative term!
When people leave mental hospitals in the real world, they (hopefully) do so with a wealth of support and a path to recovery tailored for their particular illness. When people leave mental hospitals in M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological horror, The Visit, they decide to kill their carers and impersonate some kids’ grandparents because… well, because they're “mental”.
They also happen to develop superhuman projectile vomiting powers, as well as a taste for human flesh, because that's what all of us with mental health issues love to do, right? It seems it's not just M. Night’s twists that are out of fashion.
David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club, may have inspired a generation of teenage boys around the world to defend their fragile masculinity, one misogynistic tweet at a time. But Fight Club has another legacy: our old friend, the “split personality” trope.
People living with Dissociative Personality Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder) may display at least two personalities but, odds are, they won’t imagine themselves looking at them (they’re more likely to have memory gaps for the times their other personalities “take over”), and their other personalities aren’t likely to be toned supervillains, hell-bent on taking down capitalism, at whatever cost.
Silence Of The Lambs
Anthony Hopkins’ first outing as the magnificent Hannibal Lecter has to be one of the most quoted films of all time (we’ll take the liver and fava beans to go, thanks). But it also contains one of the most problematic depictions of an LGBT character of all time.
Happy-go-lucky serial killer, Buffalo Bill, just wants to kill him some plus-sized white women and remove parts of their skin. So far, so believable - white men are weird, after all. But then it's revealed that Jame Gumb is removing the skin to make himself a woman suit, because he is a repressed homosexual who wants to transform into a woman due to past trauma. Sadly it's usually members of the trans community who find themselves on the receiving ends of violence, but anything to make a good movie, right, Jonathan Demme?
Despite the crimes of the last four movies, no depiction of mental health issues, no matter how violent, paranormal or offensive, will compare to the subtle and problematic nature of Garden State. Perhaps I'm being too harsh on Zach Braff’s 2004 indie darling, about a man who meets the girl of his dreams while dealing with the loss of his mother, but Garden State damaged me more than any other film on this list.
When I first started to experience anxiety and depression in university, I didn't seek help. I bottled, resulting in months of malaise, anxiety attacks, and rampant drug use. Why? Because, in my mind, medication meant misery, thanks to Zach Braff.
Over the course of the film, it is revealed that, due to his ‘anger’, Braff’s character has been on lithium, mood stabilisers, and antidepressants for all of his adult life. The result of which is mind-numbing monotony, the inability to feel, to experience pain or pleasure. To cease to live and merely exist. It looked miserable.
As a twenty-something idiot, still buying into the ‘tortured genius’ myth and believing that I was either, numbing myself to the ‘beautiful pain of reality’ (as I so often called it) was the last thing I wanted to do. I told you I was a dick. Eight years later, and on medication for the second time in my life, I'm pleased to report that, for me at least, the drugs help.
And that's without even mentioning the movie’s ‘heal thyself with the help of a good woman’ trope… f***ing Garden State.
So, there you have it, five movies that, for me, do the most damage when depicting mental health issues. Please let me know if you've got any to add to the list!
Now why not check out a load of guys and girls trying to guess what weird sexting slang is for...