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Representation of Mental Illness in the Media

Posted by Alexandra Van Rijn on

A major topic of conversation in the film and media world right now is representation within television and movies. This topic covers a large range of human aspects such as race, religion, gender, sexuality, and of course, mental illness. Being able to visibly and emotionally connect with characters on screen can be incredibly important. Having these connections with characters on the big screen and television shows can be fun, inspiring and in some ways cathartic. If people never see characters they can relate to in media it can be heartbreaking in some ways and damaging in others. It can make people feel like they do not matter or that their experiences are not valid. While mental illness has been represented in films and media for many years I, and many others in the mental health awareness community, would say that for the most part, it is in a stigmatizing way. Even when shows are well-intentioned with their character’s mental illness they often misrepresent what that is truly like to experience one. 

As a film and media student, I have found it very interesting to see how mentally-ill individuals have been depicted in films throughout time. Historically many mentally-ill individuals have been trope characters of the horror film genre, with characters like Jame Gumb from Silence of the Lambs, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, and Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho murdering on the big screen for decades. The fixation on the mentally-ill as violent people and the only ones capable of doing horrendous acts is very harmful to the mental health community. If people who are uneducated on the topic of mental illness are consistently seeing characters with various mental disorders acting in violent and criminal ways, then they will likely create misconceptions about these illnesses in their mind. While this trope of mentally-ill individuals being the “bad guy” is not a recent phenomenon, it is also not a fading one. Big name stars are still signing up for roles that make mentally individuals look dangerous. Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick in the last year stared in The Voices, which depicts a man who is convinced by his pets to murder various women in his life. And in the upcoming year of 2017, M. Night Shyamalan is releasing yet another horror movie depicting dissociative identity disorder as a disease that creates violent criminals in his new movie Split staring the famous James McAvoy. Despite the continuation of this terrible film trope, there have been some other recent depictions of mental illness in shows and movies that have been a step forward. 

Shows and movies recently have had more main characters that are good people who struggle with their mental health. However, they often tend to not fully capture what a mental illness truly feels like. An example of this that I struggled to watch was Hanna Marin in Pretty Little Liars. As someone who struggles with similar mental health issues as Hanna, I found it hard to watch her overly simplified eating disorder. “Hefty Hanna” transitioned to the new Queen Bee of Rosewood High through the act of binging and purging. Her eating disorder seems to disappear entirely as soon as she reaches her desired weight and appearance. As an audience, perhaps we do not get to see the moments where Hanna struggles with her mental illness. However, how the show depicts Hanna’s illness makes it appear to be more of a dieting technique than an illness. The potential to reach many young girls who may be struggling with similar body image issues was a great opportunity that was missed by this show. Many shows really miss this opportunity. Many shows use mental illness in a similar way as Pretty Little Liars.

We see characters with anxiety, depression, addiction, and other eating disorders as passing phases or plot lines. 

The moment that I did find a character that I felt like captured my mental illness accurately was so exciting. Obviously, everyone’s mental health journey is different but any connection can feel like a major deal on a bad day. This semester I began watching FX’s You’re the Worst. In this show's second season one of the main characters goes through a depressive episode and suddenly the show opens up a variety of topics of what in means to struggle with mental illness.. The show covers topics like relationships, work, and medication in relation to depression. The conversation of how mental illness affects all aspects of an individual’s life is so important. Actually seeing another person struggling with similar conversations as a result of a shared illness is comforting. This show made me feel like I wasn’t alone.

The more shows that begin to try to tackle diverse mental illnesses in hard but realistic ways, the more people will feel represented and even understood. Seeing more people with mental illness on television would have positive effects on both people struggling with their mental health, as well as any of the general population that have misconceptions about what different mental illness are and what it means to have one.


Written by Campus Rep Meagan Anderson 


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