How TV is changing perceptions of mental disorders | Deseret News National
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Kent Smith, Associated Press
Culture

How TV is changing perceptions of mental disorders

Jessica Lane began worrying something was wrong with her as a high school student.

To outsiders, she seemed to have it all; she was a pretty varsity athlete in Renton, Wash., with good grades, great friends and a supportive family. But others didn't know she pretended to be ill and locked herself in her room because she couldn’t handle going to movies or dances with friends. She was weighed down by worries and sadness.

"Some days it felt like there was one of those cartoon dark clouds above my head and sunshine and blue skies above everyone else," said Lane, who is now a college student, wife and mother living in Boise.

After Lane was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at the age of 14, she felt a profound sense of shame. Her family knew she was ill and tried to help her, but she feared other people (even her longtime high school boyfriend) would believe she was weak or crazy. She had seen mentally ill people portrayed as "weird and off, sad loner types, or criminally insane" in the media, and she didn't want to be placed in any of these categories. For years, she attempted to keep her suffering secret.

Lane is one of many Americans afflicted by mental illness. Researchers reported that in 2005, approximately 26 percent of adults in America suffered from at least one mental disorder or substance use disorder during the previous year, according to the 2012 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Behavioral Health Report.

And some mentally ill individuals are afraid to seek help because a particular ailment has been stigmatized in the media, according to Evan Katz, a leading therapist and author. While portrayals of mental illness in the media have become more accurate in recent years with shows like "Homeland" and "Elementary," some films and TV shows continue to form and spread damaging views of mental disorders and treatment methods.

Fear and mental illness

A number of films — particularly older films, notes Katz — led viewers to believe mentally ill individuals threaten others' safety. In Alfred Hitchcock's classic film "Psycho," for example, a schizophrenic man dressed as his mother stabs guests — including a young woman in the shower during a famous scene — staying in the hotel he manages.

Films like this cause viewers to believe schizophrenic people are dangerous. But Katz said the majority of people with schizophrenia are harmless.

"Most people who have schizophrenia are not high-risk or dangerous," said Katz. "They just make people uncomfortable because people aren't used to seeing someone just talking to themself out loud."

Cirecie A West-Olatunji, president of the American Counseling Association and an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, said older films that featured a character with a mental disorder, such as the horror film "The Bad Seed" (1956), provided a very "stylized" and one-dimensional depiction of mental illness.

"('The Bad Seed') doesn’t really provide excellent examples of what (mental illness) looks like, how it impacts the family and what some of the interventions are," said West-Olatunji.

Mental illness exaggerated, used as excuse for bad behavior

Some recent films (outside of the horror genre) try to provide more nuanced portrayal of mental disorders but still spread incorrect information.

Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist, professor and author, believes filmmakers and TV producers frequently put a "positive spin" on mental illness, which leads to inaccuracy. Durvasula said though she loved "Silver Linings Playbook," it implies people can dance away bipolar disorder. "As Good as It Gets" also sacrifices genuineness in favor of positivity because the main character, who suffers from OCD, rapidly improves after he falls in love and finds a friend.

"Saying a character is mentally ill becomes a story device to have that person behave badly 'for a reason' and rationalizes their bad behavior in a way, which further stigmatizes mental illness," said Durvasula.

Katz said films and TV shows can also damage people's perspective of mental illness by only showing the most extreme cases. He said "Rain Man" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" are good movies and accurately portrayed how people with mental disorders have been treated, but both movies exaggerated certain aspects of mental illness and treatments for theatrical purposes.

"When you do that with mental illness, you’re creating a stigma that stays with people because people don’t know what (the illness) is," said Katz.

Better portrayals of disorders

However, other recent depictions of mental disorders in the media are more accurate, according to Durvasula. She credits this to larger TV and movie productions having Ph.D.s or M.D.s on hand to contribute their opinions.

She said movies such as "Aviator" (which shows Howard Hughes' struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder or obsessive compulsive personality disorder), "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" portray mental disorders more correctly.

Additionally, West-Olatunji said writers of certain episodes of TV shows including "Castle," "Homeland" and "Elementary" have received awards from the Voice Awards program, which recognizes people and media productions that have helped raise awareness about mental health. For example, in the award-winning "Homeland" episode, an explosion causes Carrie, who suffers from bipolar disorder, to have a major manic episode.

Why mental health education is important

West-Olatunji said mental health awareness is important because many people and programs can help those with disorders.

"For many people there’s a stigma against seeking mental health assistance. A lot of that has been due to the portrayal of mental health professionals in the media that isn’t accurate," she said, adding the American Counseling Association — which is a partner of the Voice Awards — wants to support films and television programs that educate the public about mental illness and substance use disorders.

She said people with mental disorders who seek help can lead "more productive lives and have better relationships."

Lane also believes mental health education, whether through the media or individual voices, is vital. That's why she began to openly discuss her struggles online after her second son was born and she experienced postpartum depression. She said it was initially a "terrifying experience," but it helped her realize she was not alone.

"I had friends and family call me and email me telling me about similar struggles and that they too were fighting depression," said Lane.

"My perception shifted as I realized that it was more common that I had previously thought. Rather than hiding and being ashamed I came to realize that depression, anxiety and mental illness — like any other disease — require treatment, support and a plan of action," she said.

Email: kpolatis@deseretnews.com Twitter: KandraPolatis