Sensitivity and Representation
Sensitivity is essential in any media representation of mental health, in part because mental health is relevant and increasingly common, and in part because mental health has all too often been used as a way to villainize characters or figures in the news. Happily, that has not been the case in recent years, as many filmmakers have sought to use mental health as far more than a plot device, and instead as an integral part of a character’s backstory and motivation.
Nevertheless, mental health should never be treated lightly in film, and a keen understanding of mental health, effective treatment, and day-to-day life is essential.
Managing Mental Health in Film
Films have been tackling mental health for decades, and introducing the concept of declining mental health to the big screen is certainly not new. What has become far more common, however, is treating mental health with the same care and consideration as a mental health practitioner might, or even with the same consideration that an online quiz from Mind Diagnostics might.
Although many films certainly miss the mark, it is increasingly common to see mental health treated not as a simple plot device to explain the insanity of a villain, but as a complex explanation of character motivations and behaviors.
How exactly should mental health in film be handled, however, apart from treating people with care and consideration?
Approaching Mental Health with Sensitivity
Most often, the most effective approach to treating mental health with sensitivity is to approach mental health only after speaking with and conducting thorough, unbiased research on people who are actually afflicted with a mental health condition, whether that condition is an easily recognized one, like depression, or an oft-misunderstood condition, like schizophrenia. The first step in effectively handling mental health in film is speaking with those who are intimately familiar with the experience.
After enlisting the help of someone who has dealt with the reality of mental illness—or multiple people who have dealt with mental illness directly—conduct additional research. Scientific journals, biographies, and more can all accurately and carefully identify the true costs and issues involved in issues surrounding mental health. Treating mental health in this way can actually prove helpful to people with mental illnesses and other issues.
Pitfalls to Avoid
Many people step into the realm of writing about mental health and bringing it to film with good intentions; in the past year alone, there have been numerous depictions of mental health issues and even disabilities in media. What is continually problematic, however, is the tendency of writers to treat mental health as though it is a burden that must be fixed in order for someone to lead a fulfilling life. Treating mental health as a character flaw that must be overcome further alienates those struggling with mental health and further stigmatizes mental illness.
The second most common pitfall seen in film addressing mental health is that of the “quick fix.” Perhaps none is quite as clear as the treatment of depression in the film “Garden State,” which alludes to the notion that depression is able to be overcome, provided that the right partner comes along. This is not only inaccurate; it is a dangerous supposition to make and can greatly mislead those with a mental illness, and those who are unfamiliar with the truth of the matter.
Crafting Characters with Mental Disorders or Illnesses
Unfortunately, the days of using Multiple Personality Disorder and Schizophrenia as an over-simplified reason for a villain’s behavior are not yet behind us. When constructing villains and heroes—whether those designations are clear or not—make sure that their mental state is not over simplified, or over-emphasized.
What makes truly great villains great is not the reason for their madness, but the reason for their behavior. Mental illness is not an excuse, but an explanation, and an appropriate handling of mental health requires an appropriate understanding of how mental health affects thoughts and behaviors.
Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health- related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with MyTherapist.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.
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