A quick Google search for “tv shows and movies with mentally ill character” brings up over 2,200,000 results. Articles with titles like 2015: The Year Mental Illness Finally Got Some Respect on TV discuss the slow shift in the depiction and impact of mental health on television. An IMDb list asks “Which of these television characters who suffered from mental illness or disorders do you most feel sorry for?”.
Psychiatric technician and MSW student Kelcey Nichols is fully aware of the opposing attitudes surrounding mental health and believes that Hollywood portrayals both affect and reflect the public’s perception.
“There is this kind of exaggeration of what mental illness is,” Nichols said. “This assumption that people with mental illness can’t live everyday lives. They can’t have jobs like you and me, they can’t grocery shop, they can’t even live on their own.”
More and more those assumptions are being proven to be untrue but Nichols wonders if it is getting through to the public.
“You tend to see no matter what the diagnosis is, the person is often portrayed as violent or someone who needs to be kept away from the rest of the world,” Nichols said.
Popular television show, Empire regularly displays a character with mental illness to varying reviews from professionals and viewers. Empire’s Andre Lyon is a college educated executive who experiences rapidly cycling periods of mania and depression, sometimes within the same day. Nichols praised actor Trai Byers’ interpretation of mania saying that he really shows what it looks like but she is critical of the way the character is handled when in crisis.
“It’s just really unrealistic, that’s not what happens. Rarely is the hospital ever called directly to someone’s house like that. The person would have to agree or you’d have to get a court order and then you could take them,” she said of a scene where Lyon is restrained and sedated in a board room before EMTs ask for a signature for a 48-hour hold.
In another big budget depiction, Silver Linings Playbook’s Pat is also met with aggression when he is manic. In one scene, he is fixated on finding his wedding video in the middle of the night. He begins to have flashbacks, unknowingly knocks his mother to the floor and ends up in a hysterical fist fight with his father that is interrupted by the police.
“They have Pat portrayed as this very violent guy and then later you find out that his wife was cheating on him,” Nichols said “I’m not condoning violence but that is a very normal response to have and that’s not something that should be attributed to bipolar disorder in any way.”
Increasing interest in mental illness all but guarantees that the media portrayals will keep coming. Nichols hopes that the cultural interest helps the stigmas and taboos around mental illness to be dropped allowing for a more normalized big screen representation.