Mental health stereotypes in films ‘worse than in the silent era’


Stereotyped characters with mental health problems in films today are even “crueller” and more “demonic” than they were a century ago in the silent era, according to a new report.

The report, Screening Madness, for the mental health anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, accuses many films of playing “to the worst public prejudices”.

A YouGov survey of nearly 2,000 people for the report found half of them had seen violent characters with mental illness in TV documentaries or on film.

And when asked what characteristics define film characters with mental illnesses, the top three answers were: violent (39 per cent), weird (35 per cent), and likely to kill violently (30 per cent).

The report, by psychiatrist and film lecturer Dr Peter Byrne, cites the Batman film The Dark Knight, in which the violence and humour around two characters are based on a misunderstanding of schizophrenia.

It also highlights Me, Myself and Irene from 2000, which starred Jim Carrey and “represented a new low at laughing at people with severe mental illness”.

But it also points to more realistic portrayals of schizophrenia, including Daniel Craig’s character in Some Voices and Russell Crowe’s in A Beautiful Mind.

The report says that “mental health stereotypes have not changed over a century of cinema”.

It adds: “If anything, the comedy is crueller, and the deranged psychokiller even more demonic than earlier prototypes.”

The report says that, while the movie industry tends to portray homosexuality and racism accurately, depictions of mental illness continue to be based on prejudice.

Sue Baker, director of Time to Change, which is led by the mental health charities Rethink and Mind, said the film industry was “actively helping to perpetuate some of the most powerful and damaging myths about people with mental health problems.”

18 August 2009

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