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How Cinema Stigmatizes Mental Illness

You don’t have to be ‘mad’ to be in the movies – but the film industry has generally shown a shaky vision of mental health. It’s not that cinema evades ‘taboo’ themes here; it’s more that it tends to swing wildly from sentimentality to sensationalism.
Which means that the perspective of Mad to Be Normal, a 1960s-set biopic of Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing, just out on video on demand (VoD), feels intriguingly new. David Tennant stars as Laing: a complex and charismatic figure, who earned fame for his radical, empathetic treatment of mental illness.

The real-life Laing was sharply quotable (he described insanity as “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”) and counter-cultural (he argued that traditional society was “driving our children mad”; he recommended LSD for his adult patients). He also fought personal demons including alcoholism and depression. Tennant’s onscreen Laing is impressively joined by Elisabeth Moss, Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon. Still, mainstream cinema struggles with a mental health ‘hero; Mad to Be Normal’s trailer booms: “To some he’s certifiable… To others he’s a saint”.

Meanwhile on the small screen, there’s a feverish buzz around the imminent Netflix series Maniac (based on the Norwegian psych ward-set drama of the same name). In the glossy and trippy US show, Emma Stone and Jonah Hill star as strangers undergoing a mysterious drug trial that claims to resolve mental health issues; “It’s not therapy – it’s science,” Maniac’s eerie Dr Mantleray (Justin Theroux) tells his patients.

US psychologist Dr Danny Wedding diagnoses several issues in his book Movies And Mental Illness: “Films such as Psycho (1960) perpetuate the continuing confusion about the relationship between schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder); Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) both perpetuate the misconception that people who leave psychiatric hospitals are violent and dangerous; movies such as The Exorcist (1973) suggest to the public that mental illness is the equivalent of possession by the devil; and movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) make the case that psychiatric hospitals are simply prisons in which there is little or no regard for patient rights or welfare. These films in part account for the continuing stigma of mental illness.”

At the same time, films might echo superstitions and stigmas that are already deep-rooted in varied cultures and beliefs – including the idea that mental illness is somehow otherworldly or supernatural. The academic article Culture and Hallucinations: Overview and Future Directions (Frank Laroi, Tanya Marie Luhrmann and Angela Woods, 2014) argues that “culture does indeed have a significant impact on the experience, understanding and labelling of hallucinations and… there may be important theoretical and clinical consequences of that observation.” The 1926 Japanese silent movie, A Page of Madness is hauntingly beautiful and surreal (with an expressive use of masks and dream sequences) and set in an asylum where a married couple have become inmate and caretaker – it highlights family honor and guilt.

Films like Prozac Nation (2001) and Garden State (2004) bring a younger generation’s perspective, where meds have become everyday brands, modern rehab wards and ‘service users’ have replaced nightmarish asylums and inmates, and discussion of mental health feels progressively destigmatised. Even the hallucinatory sci-fi of Donnie Darko (2001) revealed a sensitive streak and youthful hope. And finally, Silver Linings Playbook (2012) starred Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (as protagonists rehabilitating from bipolar disorder and depression, respectively), going so far as to stir in offbeat rom-com elements.

The movies may be promoting and reflecting a heightened public awareness of mental health; the ‘madness’ still brings viewers close to our own vulnerability.

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