Flipping Between the Channels of Mental Health Representation

Trigger warning: Mentions of suicide and self-harm representation in TV series and films

"Film and TV can be a huge force for good in mental health but there is also potential to harm, and that must be recognised and addressed.” - Chris O’Sullivan (Mental Health Foundation, UK)

If you are someone living with a mental illness, you either have one of two responses to television and films that promise characters and plot lines to do with mental health: a gleeful spring into the air or a hefty face-palm. It seems that there’s no acceptable grey area. Filmmakers and showrunners often hit the nail on the head. In the writing room, the hard work of psychologists, experts, and those with lived experience pays off in the film! Other times, they get it wrong. So wrong, that you’re wondering if their only exposure to mental illness was from a dictionary definition.

Here’s what to watch (and what to avoid) for your next movie night when you want to watch something that hits close to home:

 

Bipolar Disorder

 

INSTEAD OF WATCHING: Midsommar (2019)

 

 

Midsommar takes both a step forward and a step back for its representation of mental health on screen. While their depiction of anxiety and PTSD is chillingly accurate, Midsommar’s depiction of bipolar disorder leaves us sighing at the obvious inaccuracies: bipolar disorder means you’re a murderer waiting to happen.

The film starts with the main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), finding out that her sister, who has bipolar disorder, murdered their parents in their sleep and then killed herself. The choice to make Dani’s sister bipolar, prompting a murder-suicide, is both unrealistic and irresponsible further perpetuating myths about bipolar disorders. According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), the statistics show that people with bipolar disorder have a higher risk of dying by suicide than actually killing or hurting others. 

 

RATHER WATCH: Euphoria (2019)

 

 

Rue (Zendaya) is a teenager who has recently gotten out of rehab for her addiction to drugs – a consequence of her anxiety disorder, depression, OCD, and ADHD diagnoses since childhood. In episode 7, Rue starts to suspect she may have bipolar disorder. According to the Council of Medical Schemes in South Africa, people with a bipolar diagnosis have “feelings [that] include severe depression, feelings of extreme happiness, or a combination of depression with restlessness”. 

What’s refreshing about the representation of a bipolar disorder in Rue compared to other characters we see on the silver screen is that Rue is not portrayed as a violent killer waiting to be unleashed. Instead, Rue goes through depressive episodes where she binge-watches 22 hours of Love Island and can’t even find the energy to pee, leading to a kidney infection. She also experiences manic episodes where she chugs coffee to keep herself awake and obsessively collects pictures and evidence to try to connect the dots as she investigates the situation her friend got caught in. As UK-based social worker, Dr Ruth C. White explains, “It’s really important for people not to think of [people living with bipolar disorder] as walking time-bombs that will destroy other people”. 

Bipolar disorder isn’t just another added characteristic to make Rue “crazy”. This is a realistic depiction of what people living with bipolar experience. It’s raw, it’s real, and it’s an important representation in the sea of movies and series that mystify and villainise bipolar disorders.

 

Depression

 

INSTEAD OF WATCHING: 13 Reasons Why (2017- )

 

 

13 Reasons Why is Netflix’s unwelcomed and irresponsible ‘gift’ that keeps on giving. Based on the book by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker’s suicide. There are thirteen reasons why Hannah killed herself, and after her death, she leaves tapes behind for each person (each ‘reason’) to listen to so they can understand why they contributed to her ultimately deciding to end her life. 

Netflix knew they were on the wrong track when the psychologist they consulted during the production strongly discouraged the project. Instead, Netflix ignored them. In season 1 alone, 13 Reasons Why features rape, sexual assault, self-harm, a graphic suicide scene, and even more irresponsibly, a glorified idea of suicide. Targeted at teens – who are especially impressionable – the show misleads audiences to believe that suicide will serve as vengeance, a final act making sure others will eternally regret their wrongful actions. As psychologists warned, many teenagers attempted copycat suicides after the show aired. Although Netflix eventually removed the suicide scene, it was just a little too late. 

 

RATHER WATCH: BoJack Horseman (2014- )

 

 

Bustle describing BoJack Horseman as “[depicting] depression more honestly than any other show on TV” is a grand claim to make. However, Netflix proved themselves capable of depicting an accurate portrayal of someone living with depression, and their subsequent struggles with addiction. 

Washed up 90s sitcom star BoJack Horseman has it all: attention, nostalgic fans, money, a huge house, and parties galore. But where this series gets it right is that it depicts how someone can have it all, and still struggle with depression; breaking a common misconception about the mental illness. According to The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), a depression disorder is a “whole-body illness”. It can last from weeks to years and can present itself in feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, and a loss of interest in activities and hobbies you may have previously enjoyed. It affects your concentration levels, your sleep patterns, your appetite, and can deteriorate social relationships. And just like BoJack Horseman, it can lead to increased use of alcohol and drugs.  

There’s no glamorisation, no overly-dramatic scenes, and no weepy tears for BoJack – just a depressed character trying to make his life a little more purposeful. 

 

Dissociative Identity Disorder

 

INSTEAD OF WATCHING: Split (2016)

 

 

Split is about Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID). He has 24 personalities and one of them is a murderous villain who can climb walls and has superhuman strength. So, it’s no surprise that Split is on our “BIG NO-NO” list. Kevin’s DID is the focus of the film: it ignites the action, it provides thrill to the audience as he kidnaps the three young girls, and it’s the overall supervillain of the film. Not only is this real mental illness cheapened to a sensationalised plot device, but this poor representation of DID in Split promotes misconceptions that people with DID are not quite human and dangerous to others.

Inaccurate representations in popular blockbusters have consequences – they perpetuate fear and mystery around those living with DID pushing the illness to the fringes of mental health discussions.   

 

RATHER WATCH: Mr Robot (2015- )

 

 

Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a self-described “average cybersecurity engineer”, is a vigilante hacker by night. He is lured into a hacking group, by their enigmatic leader Mr Robot (Christian Slater). At the end of the first season it’s revealed to the audience (and to Elliot) that he had been Mr Robot all along. But, there’s more: Mr Robot is Elliot’s manifestation of his deceased father. However, this reveal is not just a plot-twist for drama – it provides viewers with an intimate and sympathetic understanding of DID. 

Although not definitively known, a widely-accepted hypothesis of the cause of DID is that the condition is a coping mechanism for young children to grapple with trauma. What Mr Robot does so elegantly is show how this could be true as Elliot responds to the trauma of his father’s death by creating the character of Mr Robot. Common to DID is also experiencing memory gaps between identity states, which explains how it’s unbeknownst to Elliot that he indeed is Mr Robot.

Elliot is neither a villain nor a hero. Elliot is just a person, grappling with politics, power, and his position in this world. Elliot is so much more than his DID, but so much of him is his DID. 

 

Now, one can argue that films are just that: films. They’re fiction, purely for entertainment and escape. But the consequences of misinformation about mental health that TV series and films distribute are far scarier. In their stigmatisation and inaccuracies of mental illnesses, they can lead to those suffering with mental illnesses to further isolate themselves and feel unwarranted shame. This leads to folks not looking for help but rather suffering in silence. 

On the other hand, for those not living with mental illnesses, these misconceptions can lead to further divides between people. This can include negative and sometimes violent thoughts about people living with mental illnesses, bullying and discrimination. Without a realistic and sympathetic glimpse into the reality of mental health by the medium we arguably consume the most, TV and films do a disservice to their audiences.

 

A big thank you to Wandile Dlamini for their contribution to the article!