Misrepresented and Misunderstood

portrayals of mental illness in television and film


As consumers of modern culture, we have a very complicated relationship with the mentally ill. Many of us stash them in the back of our minds as plot devices, charities we donate to, scientific studies, or something unnoticed until they directly affect us. Without being mentally challenged ourselves, it is nigh impossible us to grasp what people who are mentally ill are thinking and feeling. As a result, literature, film, and television exploit this ignorance to craft their wares in accordance with their own specific agendas. Without a frame of reference or personal experience with mental illness, it can be difficult for us to understand characters that are haunted by their own limitations. 1398215924

I took on this article after seeing United States of Tara and seek to share my experience of that show, in hopes of shedding light on the use and abuse of the mentally ill within the media, although I admit that I have very little knowledge of the illnesses themselves. In order to learn more, I approached occupational therapist Ashley Smith who works with autistic children to answer some of my questions.

what films or television shows portray mental illness well? how do they touch upon reality? what is so special about them?

Examples of films or television shows that portray mental illness well include: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Temple Grandin, and Silver Lining’s Playbook. Both the first and second films I have listed portray an individual with autism, while the third film portrays a man with bipolar disorder. All three films do a wonderful job of portraying accurate symptoms of mental illness, reflecting on both the good and the bad while refraining from focusing on the “stereotypes” portrayed in the media. For example, Temple Grandin tells the true story of “Temple,” a young woman who grew up with autism in a world that did not understand her. This film does a great job with placing the viewer in the eyes of someone with autism, and how they experience their sensory environment (e.g. sounds and sights seem more enhanced and scary at times), and their social environment (e.g. having difficulty with social interactions/relating to others). Finally, this film also displays how successful autistic individuals can become if provided with the right supports and treatment, as Temple ended up graduating with both her master’s and doctoral degrees in animal science. With that being said, this film only captures an individual who is at a higher level on the autistic spectrum. I think more films need to be created that show the array of functional outcomes/symptoms that an individual with autism can have—to educate the public on the full picture. The film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape does showcase a young boy who is lower on the autism spectrum well, however he is not the lead in the movie therefore the specifics of the illness are not discussed. The third film I have listed, Silver Lining’s Playbook showcases the struggles of a man with bipolar disorder. This film also does a great job of portraying both the “manic” and “depressive” ends of this disease, without “exaggeration,” which is many times the case. It also portrays bipolar disorder in a positive light, and demonstrates how with the right supports and treatment, an individual can live a fairly normal life.

what films or television shows portray mental illness poorly? what are they doing wrong?

When I think of films or television shows that portray mental illness poorly, the first ones that come to mind are horror films (e.g. Halloween, Friday the 13th). This genre of film tends to depict a “psychopath”, focusing on the extreme negative outcome of mental illness, when left untreated. Not all individuals turn violent and this portrayal can lead to the public associating mental illness with violence.

what are three things about mental illness that most people don’t know?

This is difficult for me to answer but I will try my best. I think three things most people don’t know are that not all mental illness is as severe as it is portrayed in the media, most mental hospitals are much more humane now and do not use torturous treatment methods (e.g. strait jackets), and mental illness manifests itself in different people in variable ways (i.e. some may have a more severe form of bipolar disorder than another individual with an identical diagnosis).


Thelonia Saunders / Kitsch Art Editor
Thelonia Saunders / Kitsch Art Editor

United States of Tara is a show that deals with dissociative identity disorder—an illness in which duress or emotional turmoil can render the patient into an alternate personality—an excellent plot device any writer would kill to get his or her hands on. Tara Gregson is happily married to her husband, Max, with whom she has two children, Marshall and Kate. Tara lives out an idealistic life, working as a painter, hanging out with her sister, and spending time with her family. But Tara isn’t always just Tara: she’s also T, a sixteen year old stuck in slutty nineties crop tops who loves playing DDR at the arcade and hooking up with random men; Buck, a smoking war vet who rides a motorcycle and takes home women; and Alice, a fifties house wife who curls her hair, bakes, and washes out her children’s mouths with soap when they swear. The problem with this situation is that, when triggered, Tara will snap into one of these different personalities, and her family is left to wrangle and keep out of trouble. When Tara returns to her body she is forced to live with the decisions of her alter egos, or “alters,” and clean up the messes they made.

The interesting thing about United States of Tara is the fact that, in its extended episodic timeframe, it is able to turn its focus onto many different aspects of the illness and family reactions. Whereas films, due to their standard two-hour running time, are forced to focus on only one aspect of mental illnesses—namely, either the toll they take on those with the illness or the people caring for them—the intermittent nature of television shows enables the writers to fully explore how Tara’s dissociation affects each character. Her children have to juggle both their own adolescent angst as well as stopping T from getting “Slut” tattooed on their mom’s stomach, and Max has to contend with the fact that Buck, unbeknownst to Tara and her entire family, has been carrying out a committed relationship with a woman named Pammi.

Many films derive the greatest part of their plotline from the toll the illness takes upon the family members. However, what United States of Tara allows us to access is Tara’s mind. Without a mental illness, it is difficult to immediately associate with a mentally ill character, but Tara draws the audience into each of the alters by making them all so human. Tara’s desire to control her own life, to understand why she is the way she is, and cope with her own loss when it comes to possessing this sickness gives viewers a common ground on which to connect with her. We care not only for Tara, but the emotionally fragile, impetuous, and unique alters she becomes. As the series progresses Tara is able to share co-consciousness with her alters. They hold meetings where they discuss conflicts they have with one another and draw up agreements as to who gets the body when.

The show is focused on Tara and we get to view her fear, disgust, and struggle. And yet, at times, her family is able to make light of the situation, allowing her to embrace her alters in the situations that demand their presence. While the media has a tendency to depict mental illnesses negatively, United States of Tara shows some of the good that comes out of Tara’s disorder in scenes such as when Buck teaches Kate and Marshall how to bowl, or beats up Kate’s abusive boyfriend.

The largest issue with mental illness in film and television is its use solely as a plot device in horror or crime stories. Even in a show as upbeat as Psych, whose audience is aware of the ridiculous nature of the show and needs no aid from horror constructs, a character with a similar dissociative identity disorder to Tara is found to be the killer in a murder. He believes himself to be haunted by the ghost of a woman, who turns out to be one of his alternate personalities reaching out to him. A different personality is unhappy with his therapy and the progress being made, so he decides to murder the therapist. This idea of what it means to be “mentally deranged” coats mental illness with a sense of fear. Even when we are consciously aware of the fact that the mentally ill are not deranged murderers, the horror and crime genres have twisted our perceptions.

Of course, the most famous multiple identity film of all time is Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock is a revolutionary director and Psycho is a genre defining film, but the plot exploits the lack of knowledge regarding mental illness on the part of the average viewer. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a psychopath (Psycho) is regarded as a mentally ill person who is highly irresponsible and antisocial and also violent or aggressive—a person consistently exhibiting psychopathic behavior. The problem with the title is that it is automatically classifies someone with a serious mental illness in a derogatory manner. Yes, Norman Bates is a murderer in his psychosis, but the fact fails to be properly acknowledged. Hitchcock uses our lack of knowledge of mental illness and multiple personalities to create fear in the final scene with Norman.

The majority of the film uses camera techniques, suspenseful soundtracks, and the withholding of information from the audience to generate the tension and horror that the film is famous for. Through the reveal of Norman’s secret and his final mother-personality voiceover as he sits in his cell, Hitchcock allows Norman’s illness to become the film’s chilling plot twist. One of the big problems with using this kind of mental illness in horror films is that it feeds into our subconscious fear of the mentally unstable. Writers seeking thrilling plot devices will use our innate fears and only continue to worsen misconceptions, rather than explore mental illness in real day-to-day situations. In United States of Tara, Tara’s alters do act out violently on occasion, but it is clear that the responsibility lies with a particular alter or the disease itself, rather than Tara. With movies like Psycho, the audience fears sweet, mild-mannered, crazy Norman; they do not attempt to understand his reasons or the illness and instead see the violence that is fed to them through the abuse of the plot.

The real problem with mental illness in the media is that it consistently presents powerful stories. As a topic that is so alien, and yet so close to home, stories of mental illness can generally hook most audiences. Yet its use can be mediated. In this day and age, film and television are our cultural outlets. Trapping the mentally ill in the same character tropes, casting them as murderers and the deranged, stunts the growing acceptance we have for those who are different. We use insane asylums in our haunted houses and watch countless horror films where the “crazy” person is an unhinged murderer. However, if we allow it, the media that continues to hold back the mentally ill by perpetuating misconceptions can also help society understand the truth of mental illness. The unknown is not going to be abandoned as a plot device, but if it’s channeled into television shows like United States of Tara and films like Silver Linings Playbook, mental illness can be understood in its reality: highs, lows, and everything in-between.

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