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mental health stigma

How films like 'Joker' continue to spread mental health stigma

So Todd Phillips' latest movie Joker has arrived in cinemas and, predictably, opinion is divided.

Some, like this Uni News writer, don't have a bad word to say about it, with many arguing that it's fuelling much-needed conversations about how society treats the mentally ill; others counter that it merely reinforces mental health stigma and damaging stereotypes, ones that the film industry has been perpetuating for years. And honestly? I'm in the latter group. Here's why.

We'll start with writer Matt Haig (who has anxiety and depression) because he summed the whole thing up rather nicely:

The sad thing is that, out of context, both of these statements are true. It sucks that when you're struggling with a mental illness you're often expected to "just get over it"; "pull yourself together"; and, if you're a bloke, "man up" (because everyone knows REAL MEN don't have FEELINGS, right?). And it sucks that, in every area of the media, mentally ill people are all-too-frequently depicted as psychopathic killers (or tortured geniuses, if the director's feeling generous).

But the first part can't be allowed to block out the second. Because—leaving aside how unfair this all is to actual clowns, who for the most part are just regular, nice people in silly outfits—Haig is right. It's good that we're talking about things like how 'the worst part of having a mental illness is that people expect you to believe that you don't'. It's good that we're starting to hold governments and societies to account for neglecting people with mental illnesses. But would it really be so hard for the film industry to do both of those things, WITHOUT having the aforementioned character with a mental illness embark on a killing spree?

And yes, I know there are some films out there that tell a good story without playing into mental health stigma. Still Alice was praised for its depiction of Alzheimer's. Good Will Hunting shows the main character overcoming depression through therapy. Silver Linings Playbook was criticised for dramatising mental illness, but equally has a seal of approval from a Harvard psychiatrist. Maybe such films aren't all perfect, but they're a step in the right direction.

But for every film like Silver Linings Playbook, sometimes it feels like there's a gazillion that, in the words of Carrie Marshall's editor at the Metro, have 'made monsters of the mentally ill'. PsychoThe Visit (of course, the imposter grandparents just had to have escaped from a mental hospital, didn't they). Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Halloween (not only is Michael Myers another asylum escapee, but director John Carpenter based him on a real boy he encountered at a Kentucky institution and, apparently, immediately decided had "devil's eyes"). Split (because you don't really have split personalities until one of them is a cannibal monster that eats the teenage girls you've abducted because of course you have).

And a lot of those films, as you've probably noticed, happen to be horror movies. Horror movies where the villain's cruelty is directly linked to the fact that they're schizophrenic, or they have dissociative personality disorders, or (for the lazy film-maker) they're just generally bonkers in some vague way that the script never bothers to confirm. Horror movies with—once more for the cheap seats—a mentally ill person as the monster. And however good (from an artistic perspective) these films are, and however sympathetic you're supposed to feel for each Norman, Kevin, whoever, that doesn't change the fact that they're—however inadvertently—adding fuel to the toxic, deadly fire of mental health stigma that frequently costs people their dignity and, in worst-case scenarios, their lives.

Let's start with the link between serial killers and mental illness. Yes, some mass shootings and killing sprees are committed by mentally ill people. But in 2004, a study of over 60 serial killers found that just 6% committed murders while psychotic; fast-forward to 2016, when a study found that less than 1% of perpetrators in gun-related homicides were mentally ill. And those who, after a mass shooting, suddenly start going on about how "we need to do a better job with mental health"? They're probably doing it because they don't want to admit that what would actually prevent more violence is better gun control. (Here in the UK, like America, we also have mentally ill people. Unlike America, we do not have a mass shooting every couple of months. Just saying.)

Not only are people with mental illnesses less likely than the stigma suggests to be the perpetrators of violence, but they're also several times more likely to be the victims of it than the general population.

And when they are dangerous, it's usually to themselves—at least, that was the case for the 6,507 suicides registered in the UK last year (the highest suicide rates here since 2002). But that doesn't mean that everyone with mental health problems is a helpless, independence-allergic victim, or doomed to tragically end their own lives. Many people with mental illnesses, even though their conditions are a very real part of their lives, are just doing the same things—working, studying, watching crap movies—that everyone else does. It doesn't define our whole lives (yes, including mine—I have anxiety. But that's not important). We have good days and bad days and, with the right resources and support, after the bad days we get up and carry on breathing, eating, shopping, walking, laughing, living

(The video below, and others in the BBC's 'Things Not to Say To...' series, are great (if short) resources to help un-learn some of the assumptions we've been taught about people with mental illnesses.)

So, here's how I think the movies should, in the future, depict mental illness—whether it's relatively mild or cripplingly debilitating.

For starters, instead of "normal" people being terrorised by a masked man who absconded from a mental hospital, let's have more horror films where the killer—as they're likely to be in real life—is completely sane. Oh, and the brave, smart and resourceful protagonist who (maybe) survives the movie? Maybe he or she also happens to have anxiety, or schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder. If it's not a horror flick and there are no zombies to blow up—but the protagonist has an illness such as depression—let's make the climax a suicide attempt, because now that we've read this article we (hopefully) know that this scenario is way more likely than a killing spree. (Obviously, though, we don't want every portrayal to be tragic, so let's have plenty of people who get "happy endings" too.) And let's have more films that portray mental illness accurately because everyone's done their research rather than indulging in sloppy stereotypes and lazy pop-psychology.

But we shouldn't just talk about mental health in stories where that's the main focus of the plot, any more than films should only have a diverse cast when the plot is about Civil Rights or slavery.

We should have more characters, in everything from romcoms to thrillers, historical dramas to sci-fi and fantasy, who happen to have mental health conditions without this defining their life and role in the plot. 

Let's have a superhero who battles Kree soldiers and sometimes his eating disorder (yes, men get them too). A rom-com girl who's working, looking for love, and getting treatment for schizophrenia. A warrior who's battling depression, and still kicks arse with her battle axe and throwing knives.

Just don't, for the love of God, give us another character whose mental illness, and/or society's treatment of their mental illness, drives them to commit a long, bloody list of horrific acts of violence.

We've had too many of those already.

Featured image: Niko Tavernise