'Split' and Stigma: Shyamalan's New Controversial Movie Advocates for Mental Health

The two largest passions I have in life besides writing is cinema and advocating for mental health. When I have the chance to watch a movie involving mental health, I am overcome with mixed emotions. My first reaction is to get excited. In a society that actually went to see Grown Ups 2 in theaters, it is refreshing to see a film that isn’t about a love triangle and car chases, or casted Ben Affleck in general. Meanwhile, it is concerning to see the direction media and Hollywood has taken the stigma of mental health. Studies show that mass media is one of the public’s primary sources of information about disorders, and that research suggests most media portrayals of mental illness are stereotypical, negative, and inaccurate.

The public has a more enhanced awareness and broader conceptualization of mental health care and mental illness than the past, but is not more informed about these two topics. The words used to describe people with mental illness such as “dangerous” and “insane” are the same ones used today. Despite new scientific advances in the understanding and treatment of mental illness, Dr. Otto Wahl, director of the graduate institute of professional psychology at Connecticut's University of Hartford, explained that recent studies indicate that media depictions of mental illness are as outdated and harmful as ever. “Recovery is seldom shown in the media,” Wahl said. “When people [are shown seeking] therapy, when they go to psychiatric hospitals – rarely do they get better. And if they do get better, it’s enough that they’re stabilized, but not enough so that … they’re integrated with the world, and have friends and jobs.” The resulting message, Wahl stated, is that individuals with mental illnesses have no hope for a “normal” life.

The divide the media creates through stereotyping the mentally ill from the rest of society has resulted in an insidious perception of mental health. “The worst stereotypes come out in such depictions: mentally ill individuals as incompetent, dangerous, slovenly, undeserving,” stated Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at the University of California–Berkeley. “The portrayals serve to distance 'them' from the rest of 'us’.”

As someone who has studied psychopathology in cinema, I was skeptical about “Split.” For those of you who have not seen it, the movie is an M. Night Shyamalan film starring James McAvoy. On the surface, “Split” was marketed just like every modern thriller. The trailer showed McAvoy getting in to a car with three teenage girls and rendering them unconscious. In the next scene, the girls find themselves trapped in a room where McAvoy locks the door. After a few more seconds of panic, they hear a woman’s voice and can see her silhouette through a crack. The girls scream for help, and when the woman opens the door… it is McAvoy wearing a dress.

“Split” is essentially a film about a man named Kevin who has 23 different personalities, which is a mental illness called dissociative identity disorder (DID). The film immediately received backlash for appearing stigmatizing to mental illness, especially since the trailer depicts Kevin as violent and unpredictable. I didn’t want to contribute revenue to a horror film that portrayed someone with DID as a monster, but as a fan of M. Night Shyamalan and McAvoy, I decided to give “Split” a chance.

After watching the movie, I am already planning to see it again.

McAvoy’s character kidnapping the three teenagers is a small part of the overall plot. Call it a marketing ploy on Shyamalan’s part, but if you were expecting to watch three helpless young women cower before a madman for two hours, you will be sorely disappointed. The bulk of “Split” focuses on Betty Buckley’s character, Dr. Fletcher, who is Kevin’s therapist and strong advocate for proving theories surrounding DID. Unfortunately for those with DID, the disease is relatively misunderstood in the medical community and usually stems from childhood abuse. In my opinion, Shyamalan handled the research of DID through Dr. Fletcher with extreme consideration to the way the disorder functions. Dr. Fletcher regarded Kevin’s illness with upmost respect, and the way she explained DID to fellow colleagues never included any popular stigmatizing myths.

Someone with DID has several “alters” or personalities that take over their subconscious without their consent. This usually occurs when the patient is undergoing a stressful situation and is looking for an escape. In “Split” Kevin explains that his personalities sit chairs within his subconscious and wait for their turn to “take the light” which equates to which alter has control over his mind. While audiences do not get to meet all 23 of Kevin’s personalities, they are introduced to the hierarchy within the alters. Barry is a gay fashion designer and the dominant alter that claims to control who enters the light. Dennis has extreme obsessive compulsive disorder along with violent tendencies, and Patricia is a nun that keeps most of the personalities in check. Lastly, Hedwig is a 9-year-old boy that causes chaos among the alters by gossiping.

Whenever Dr. Fletcher holds therapy sessions with Kevin, Barry controls him. Dr. Fletcher never pressures him to divulge anything he isn’t comfortable with, nor does she try to deny his DID. Dr. Fletcher at one point explains that she has the power to summon Kevin through discussing his past, but chooses not to because she wants his alters to feel comfortable confiding in her. When Dr. Fletcher’s colleagues attempt to convince her that DID is not an actual disorder (since many in the medical community deny DID entirely), she uses proven studies as a rebuttal. Dr. Fletcher’s respectable treatment of Kevin and ability to educate the audience on DID was a fantastic way to discuss mental illness stigma without portraying Kevin as someone beyond help.

Besides “Split” including a character that educated audiences on DID throughout the movie, Kevin himself was a character that went beyond the stereotype of misunderstood patient.

SPOILERS ABOUT THE ENDING BELOW – SKIP TO END OF NEXT THREE PARAGRAPHS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE!

Towards the end of the movie, it was difficult not to sympathize with each of the alters. From Dennis to Hedwig, each wanted the best for Kevin – someone they knew better than anyone. Most importantly, the audience now has learnt of Kevin and Casey’s past abuse at the hands of family members.

When Casey uses Dr. Fletcher’s method to summon Kevin over all the other alters, the audience is introduced to a man who suffers from every major symptom of DID, including amnesia. He believes it is still 2014, which is presumably the last time Kevin had taken the light. While the adrenaline is coursing through the audience’s veins after just witnessing Kevin’s 24th personality, they are stunned to see just how gentle Kevin is. His first reaction is to ask Casey if he had hurt her. When he realized what he had done to Dr. Fletcher, we understand why the alters are so protective over Kevin. Kevin asks Casey to kill him, and the suicidal, downtrodden real Kevin is exposed.

This was such a monumental scene in the movie. “Split” had already done a fantastic job of explaining DID and discussing sexual assault, and now showed Kevin as human. While the Beast was every terrifying stereotype of madness, Kevin himself was every patient fighting their disorder. It was one of the first movies I had personally seen where the villain with a mental illness was completely humanized.

OKAY, SPOILER OVER!

Despite its controversial reviews, I highly recommend “Split” to anyone that wants to watch a psychological thriller with an open discussion about mental health. The trailer of “Split” plays off every mental health stereotype, but the well-developed characters, education of DID, and humanization of Kevin himself makes it a must-see in theaters.

Obviously some scenes were sensationalized. “Split” is still a movie created to entertain rather than inform. However, the portrayal of DID was far from exploitative and is worth the watch.

In a homage to Hedwig, “Split” has gauged a shocking discussion on mental illness to people and it’ll do shocking things to you.

 

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