Feature story 1 Draft

A group of actors sit in a circle in the middle of the stage. They are here to do the table discussion for an upcoming production. The usual questions are asked. How does your character interact with this character? How long have you known each other? Was this your first serious relationship? But this table discussion has some very specific questions that these actors must answer. How are we going to address mental illness with respect? How can we make this character seem real?

The representation of mental health disorders on TV, in movies, and on stage is a much debated thing on any arts and entertainment website you visit. Lists are made of the best and the worst representation, sometimes even actors are blamed for a lack of realism in their portrayal, and the stigma of mental health is always brought up. In a time where the news and politicians like to blame mental disorders for any tragedy that they can’t blame on terrorists how important is our representation of mental health and how can we make strides towards lessening a deep seated stigma.

The topic of mental health has been one that the entertainment industry has historically been fascinated in. This began in the 1930s with portrayals of Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder) in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and has continued to the present day with the current onslaught of mental health centric TV shows and movies released almost monthly. Even as this plethora of media is distributed to the masses this does not mean that the representation is no longer problematic.

“Mental health is presented in a more extreme form or maybe a more dramatized form in media.” Morningside’s on-campus personal counselor Bobbi Meister believes that even though movies and TV shows about mental health are good, they are not real life. “It’s still a drama. Some of the characteristics that are presented aren’t always done in a natural way.” She says that they are parts of certain shows that do a good job. She believes that Parenthood does a good job of representing autism and Iron Man 3 shows what she believes to be a realistic panic attack to those she has witnessed.

When asked if any current media was representing mental health well Psychology Professor Dr. Shannon DeClute had a simple, one-word answer. “No.”

She is not alone in this belief. Many mental health professionals feel that although representation of mental disorders has progressed greatly in recent years, there are still more shows that get it wrong. Professionals believe that the ways mental disorders are presented further a stigma already held by society of how those who have a mental disorder act.

“So many movies that involve violence and aggression often lazily use the cause of mental illness. For example, something like DID, Dissociative Identity Disorder, there’s so many movies out there where the mass murderer has multiple personalities.” Dr. DeClute brought up movies, such as 2016’s Split, where the villain is a “crazy” person.

This troupe is used often in horror and suspense movies such as Psycho, Fatal Attraction, The Shining, and American Psycho. This genre is usually pointed to as the most likely to further the stigmas that American’s have that people with mental disorders are dangerous and aggressive. Meister says that “most people that have mental health problems are not violent.”

Along with the horror genre, Meister says that comedy could also be contributing to the stigma. “Whenever you bring some of that comedy and stuff in it really exacerbates the stereotypes. When that happens I think that its…not helpful.”

Representation of any group of people is important. Society is currently pushing back against a lack of representation that has been in the media for many years. This is a contributing factor to the sheer amount of characters and shows that show different sides of mental health now. Dr. DeClute says that it is important to have characters that accurately represent mental health issues and the issue should not be avoided. She believes that the mental illness should not be a character’s whole identity, just one other part of their identity.

“That’s representative of who we actually are. Estimates of 50-75% of the U.S. population will meet the criteria for mental disorders at some point in time. That’s who we are and our characters should reflect that, but they should reflect it in a non-dramatic, accurate way.”

So what can be done to fix the representation of mental health? Dr. DeClute gave this suggestion “Stop being lazy and stop using mental health as an excuse for violence and aggression.” She says that the majority of individuals with mental health issues are going to be victims of violence.

Meister believes that writers should shift the way that they approach writing characters with mental disorders. “I think that it definitely would be good to not just show one element of it. What they are presenting a lot of times in the entertainment industry is a pervasive illness that they deal with their entire lives, it’s not usually something that is a reaction to a situation and you work through it. I don’t think they do a good job of showing how they can be ‘normal.’ ”

The most important point both women brought up is that consumers of this media should not take what they are seeing presented in the media as anything educational about mental health conditions.

“They are trying to do it for entertainment. They want ratings for their show, they want people to watch them, and they are showing bits and pieces of issues and treatment and resolution. That’s good for entertainment and that’s the choices they are making.” Because the purpose of media such as television and movies is entertainment, Dr. DeClute says that these more dramatized choices are the choices that these programs should be making but viewers have to remember that these are just entertainment.

1 Comment so far

  1.   Mari Pizzini on September 18th, 2018

    I really like where this story is going and the fact that you have taken well-known ideas in the media and are holding them accountable for their representations. One thing I would suggest would be to separate your paragraphs more. For a journalism scene, they are pretty dense and the structure of your paragraphs could take away from your content. Also, write for real-life people. Keep quotes with what people said, but don’t overdramatize or describe what in other sections. People get lost when there are thousands of adjectives. Finally, make sure that your sentences flow and you are using commas where they should be placed. It would also be nice to see a third person in this story, maybe someone from your circle in the beginning.

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