Growing up I’ve always loved films. I fell in love with the art and craft of it and everything that goes behind. So much so, that I’ve pursued my studies and career in it. I always knew that if people weren’t there for me, films always will be. They became my friends – the way I communicated, the way I understood the world around me had all been influenced by what I watched but most importantly, it made me feel. Like, really feel.
Soon enough I hit rock bottom in my early teens. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, which led to anxiety and minor personality issues. I know, sounds overwhelming, and just like many of you reading this, I was overwhelmed too. To make this worse, people around me never understood and still don’t understand the depths of my mental illness and it doesn’t help when there is little to no accurate discourse surrounding mental health.
People aren’t born understanding mental or physical health, we only learn such things through discourse. Although, many people are now more open to talk about mental health, it’s mostly surface level. There are still misconceptions, stereotypes and a frustrating amount of reluctance to learn more about it. One of the ways we can educate more people is through powerful platforms that help mental illnesses (MIs) become a social discourse. Because discourse is what allows and influences human beings to shape their opinions and beliefs. So what better way to translate such a broad topic other than films, right?
Unfortunately, the portrayal of MI in films has always been poor. Films, TV series, and adverts have all contributed to the stigmatization of MIs. This goes back to one of the first films that highlighted the psyche of a serial killer, called M (1931). After this film, there were many more films released that not only highlighted but rather based the plot of the film on MIs.
Notable films such as Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted (1999) and last but not the least Shyamalan’s Split (2016) have their protagonist centered around their MI. To someone who hasn’t watched any of these films, it doesn’t sound like the worst thing. However, all of these films contain immense violence. Violence that the person with a mental illness always conducts and sometimes even leading to murder. When in reality, people with mental illnesses are far more likely to face the violence.
Now, I know films are a means of entertainment so it’s “not that deep” but when sensitive and serious topics are portrayed in media, it is heavily consumed by everyone so it no longer becomes entertainment. It becomes influence. It becomes a way people see life around them, just like I did growing up.
I also find it very hard to make people understand the significance of misrepresentation of MI. I’m almost always met with criticism for being too “politically correct”. I find that even the most basic information backed up by statistics and most importantly real human experiences is overlooked because a piece of fiction seems to be taken more seriously. As someone who struggles and lives with MI, I find it very insulting that my hard work to keep myself stable is often exaggerated and that someone like me would be portrayed as a danger to society.
I want to say times are getting better, but it only keeps getting worse within the film industry. For instance, the recent release of the film Joker (2019) has started an important dialogue amongst avid fans of the character and people who have MIs. Joker’s character is a supervillain and as a film enthusiast, I can appreciate the filmmakers for thinking outside the box for straying away from a “typical” supervillain film. Personally, I really am a fan of the visuals and the performances in the film but the narrative really doesn’t sit very well with me.
As twisted as that sounds, bad guys are bad guys but they’re also supposed to be likeable as characters. It’s hard for me to like Todd Philip’s version of this epic character because it humanizes Joker while also demonizing mentally ill people. It sends a message that no matter what life throws at you, you’re mental instability will lead to violence. I’m not saying all films should have messages in them, I just think there are film makers who are trying to send out important messages but the result can be very problematic.
Before anyone tells me “It’s just a film”, I want to take this time to remind them that ideologies like these perpetuate stigma, which becomes a dangerous situation for many people with MIs. Because when you have a MI it’s already diﬃcult to open up and talk to people without feeling like you’re a burden to them. Now add all the stereotypes, misconceptions and prejudice that most people have against people with MIs, and it makes everything a lot worse.
I chose to pursue my interests in Film because I want to express what I feel, I want to connect with people all over using film as a universal language. We as film makers have to understand and be mindful of what we create and audiences also have to be more critical when watching films. After all, art is a reflection of the society around us, so let’s make it worthwhile and accepting of us all.
Parveen Kamal is a third year Media student and a student volunteer for MDX Mindset.