Dewi Evans

Openly gay, crazy and neuro-diverse writer and performer from Wales now living in London. Interested in all things related to theatre, writing, art and mental health.

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The portrayal of Mental Illness in Film and TV.

So there are numerous films and tv shows out there that portray mental illness/mental distress that I think further stigmatise mental illness. The example that springs to my mind are the way that the characters with mental illness are portrayed in "The Bird Box". Not having read the book (yet) I can’t comment on the book’s portrayal but for me, the film reinforced the negative stereotype that people with mental illnesses will harm or hurt ‘sane’ people. The fact that all of the ‘insane’ characters behaved erratically, committed violent acts against the ‘normal’/’sane’ survivors and were ultimately responsible for the death of Tom worries me as a ‘mad’ person who suffers from a mental illness.

There are countless other examples of mentally ill characters being dangerous to ‘normal’/’sane’ people and I am beginning to wonder if, like the LGBTQ community, those of us with mental illnesses should be asking for more than a vague stereotype based on outdated ideas of who and what ‘crazy people’ are.

What do other people think? Can you think of any examples that counter this argument? I’d love to hear your perspectives.

  • I didn't put as much weight on the issue in Bird Box because of the supernatural element blamed for everything and the driving force of the story. Their madness isn't necessarily their fault, and then neither are characters' suicide, so it's an interesting line to draw about stereotypes and enforcement. I definitely agree there's a problem in media with the portrayal of mental illness, although it has improved over the years with exposure, it is still not great. I can't think of any others off the top of my head but this article would be great with several examples-- one of poor (and probably cruel) misrepresentation of illness, Bird Box as the middle ground, and a positive example we can all be encouraged to watch and support for the rights of people suffering with mental illness! :) – Slaidey 5 years ago
  • Hey Slaidey My main issue with Birdbox is the fact that all the mentally ill people in the film (who were immune to the supernatural creates effects) were mostly portrayed as people to be feared and overly violent. This could be seen as a reinforcement of years of 'mad' (I use the term as someone who is proud of their mental illness - if such a thing is possible) oppression where the insane were misunderstood and seen as a threat to the wider 'sane/normal' population. This is certainly the impression I got from Bird Box where the insane characters were largely to be feared. The same effect could have been achieved, in my opinion, without making the characters violent. Probably the most nuanced portrayal is by Tom Hollander whose character is the closest to how I would have like to have seen the other 'mad' characters portrayed. There have been some good portrayals of mental illness in the media lately, but in a world where representation is key to understanding, I think film and TV companies, as well as content creators, would do more. That said the BBC did some brilliant documentaries on mental illness in May but surely mad people are entitled to representation in a wider range of genres? One of the ways that media companies could improve their representation is by looking at what has been on the stage recently here in London (where the performers/creators of the pieces are people with lived experience of mental illness) and maybe work with performance makers such as The Vaccum Cleaner or Milly Thomas to film the work they have recently performed on stage. I guess the lack of representation is symbolic of a larger problem of diversity and representation and the possible in build risk aversion that most big media companies have when it comes to taking a chance on upcoming projects that might be seen to have 'small/ethnic/minority' audiences. Communities larger than the insane community such as the Black and LGBTQ+ communities have been fighting for equal rights for over 50 years and even with their campaigning, lobbying and calls for more equal representations they are still struggling towards fairer and more equitable representation on screen. Hopefully, things will get better (I think Netflix is doing some amazing work representing the LGBT community) over time as long as the people making the decisions move away from stereotypes. – Dewi Evans 5 years ago
  • There is the inevitability that mental illness is overdramatized within film and television. This is because the way that entertainment has evolved over the past several decades has trained consumers to be interested in the big, moving, exhilarating things. There are some mental illnesses that have dangerous, intense, and scary attributes and behaviours to them. However, the majority of mental illnesses are in the details. They are about the personality traits that are seen as weird, or the behaviours that make people cock their heads because they are trying to determine what is off, or the person that is slightly socially awkward. These things are not blockbuster, do not catch people's attentions unless they have been educated to look and listen, and are not going to be the first thing someone picks to watch. The desensitivity to so much in today's society has made people cruel, especially towards things that could be seen as weird or weak (i.e. mental illness). This does not help or favour the notion of making a film or making a television show that highlights mental illness in both an accurate and positive way. So many movies or television shows that have accurately portrayed illnesses have taken them to the extreme and created a monster out of the person that has the illness. Take Split for example; This movie was created based on an individual having multiple personalities, who took three young girls because several of his personalities told him to. The stigma behind multiple personalities is that it is all within the person's head, and that each personality is a coping mechanism for a specific fear or anxiousness that the person carries with them in everyday life. This overdramatization plants ideas in people's head that are triggered when they meet someone in reality with the particular disorder. Instead of seeking to understand the condition from this real person's perspective, many refer back to the information that they have acquired from an unreliable source. – heck1860 5 years ago

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Latest Comments

Loved this article. The morality of the Doctor is always very vague and he always has his own agenda. Would have been interesting to see what you would have thought of “The Day of The Doctor” in relation to this as the War Doctor originally planned to kill both the Daleks and the Time Lords (who had by that point become just as bad as the Daleks themselves).

The Moral of Doctor Who: Answering the Questions of "Genesis of the Daleks"

Great bit of writing, loved reading the parallels between Star Trek and The Cold War.

"Balance of Terror": Star Trek, History, and National Security

The one truly great thing about Audio Books that was missed by the article is the fact that for people like myself who have dyslexia (as well as other reading difficulties) audio books offer a great way of engaging with longer books that we would otherwise struggle to read. I love listening to them on the tube or in the car when I am driving and it helps me keep up with other people’s ‘normal’ reading habits.

Audiobooks: Do they Enhance or Diminish the Enjoyment of a Story?

An interesting article but I think the argument here could also be applied to Art in general not just creative writing.

Creative Writing is the Sincerest Form of Reality