In this day and age, seeing someone with a mental health disorder portrayed on television or in the media is nothing new. Bipolar disorder, histrionic disorder, and outright psychopathy have all been done. That does not mean that they have been done justice.

More often than not, you will find the depictions sorely outdated. Or, worse, just flat out wrong. Yes, a character with a mental illness might seem appealing. Some might even seem “cool;” but, it’s important to depict these disorders in a responsible and nuanced manner.

Mental Health Disorders: Advancing the Archetype

We used to have characters like Adrian Monk from MONK. Remember how “quirky” his obsessive-compulsive disorder was? Except, for people that suffered from OCD, it was an insult. Mental health disorders are no joke. No one ever said they were. However, the media treats them like the “evil twin” soap opera tropes of character traits.

MONK –– “Mr. Monk and the Genius” –– Pictured: Tony Shalhoub as Adrian Monk –– USA Network Photo: Isabella Vosmikova

Now, we’re starting to see a new trend; fortunately, more advanced studies on mental health disorders have occurred in the last several years. The media is taking mental health disorders more seriously. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but there have been improvements. Let’s take a look at some of the wrong ways that it has been done first to get an understanding of how far we have come.

The Bad: Addiction

Remember SAVED BY THE BELL? It was cute, cheesy and full of delicious era goodness. Then, there was that episode. You know the one. You already hear “I’M SO EXCITED!” in your head. Like most people, you probably thought “What the heck?” if you saw it. Probably the same if you just watched that clip. In the episode, Jessie develops an addiction to caffeine pills.

Addiction is, by nature, a mental health disorder. It changes the composition of how your brain works and your hierarchy of needs. So, while this episode shows a mental health disorder, it’s almost comical in its portrayal. Sure, the message was innocent enough: drugs are bad, mmkay? But the portrayal took it to the extreme.

Or how about Charlie Harper from TWO AND A HALF MEN? A blatant alcoholic, Charlie still manages to stay suave, employed, and together. Anyone who’s ever known an alcoholic knows that’s pretty incorrect. An alcoholic can be a very dangerous person, both to themselves and to others. But good old Charlie just carries on as though life were an everyday party. Sure, there are functional alcoholics — but that doesn’t mean they function 24/7.


The Bad: Schizophrenia

Or how about the ever classic FRIENDS? No one told you life was going to be this way? Clap clap clap clap. Phoebe Buffay was always a source of comedy on the show. She was flaky, random, and had tons of crazy conspiracy theories. She makes a couple of references to hearing voices in her head.

This is all with the laugh track blaring away. But, last I checked, schizophrenia wasn’t all that funny. Phoebe’s random antics were often the laughing stock of the group. Her strange relationship with reality was met with chuckles or knowing looks from the other actors. Regardless, schizophrenia isn’t just “hearing voices”:

Schizophrenia is defined as: a long-term mental disorder of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behavior, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.

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The Bad: Psychopathy

How about your good ole’ psychopaths? This might surprise you, but one of the supposed Kings of psychopathy is scary — but not realistic. Hannibal Lecter from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is portrayed as a complete psychopath. And, while he is terrifying, forensic analysts say that his high-functioning intellect is a trope of psychopathy, not a symptom. From the article itself:

…that’s the diagnosis from forensic psychiatrist Samuel Leistedt, who has interviewed and diagnosed real psychopaths, people who he describes as feeling no empathy for others. “They’re cold-blooded,” he says. “They don’t know what an emotion is.”

While nowhere close to an awful portrayal, it simply isn’t the right kind of portrayal to do a true psychopath justice. Hollywood has a lot of close, but no cigar moments.

But it’s not all awful portrayals. It’s not all for the yucks.

The Good: Addiction

Try Miriam Pataki from HEY ARNOLD. The notorious bully Helga’s mother, Miriam, is constantly forgetful, sluggish, and slurring her speech. She sounds down, forgets to pack her daughter’s lunches, and is always making “smoothies.” The creators of HEY ARNOLD flat out admitted that “smoothies” was their way of sneaking alcoholism past the censors at the time.

You also get to see even more dysfunction in further episodes like OLGA COMES HOME and HELGA ON THE COUCH. It’s one of the first times you’ll see narcissistic personality disorder portrayed in a cartoon, if at all. It’s a classic case of scapegoat and golden child between Helga and her sister, Olga. Pretty impressive depictions for a cartoon, don’t you think?

The Good: Schizophrenia

Award winning A BEAUTIFUL MIND features a schizophrenic main character in John Nash. A BEAUTIFUL MIND manages to be both a good and a bad portrayal. While his hallucinations, side effects, and personality are great, the message the movie ultimately delivers is a poor one. John Nash doesn’t enjoy his antipsychotic medication, so he stops it, causing him to relapse.

This puts his wife and their child in physical danger, but Nash promises that he can control it. The book (and film) go on to show him “mastering” his hallucinations. He has “learned” to ignore them. Fact is, for most schizophrenics, ignoring these hallucinations is not just a matter of willpower.

READ: Want more insight into mental illness? Check out: BRUCE WAYNE: MAKING A SOCIOPATH.

However, despite the poor message, the actual portrayal of the mental illness is not only accurate but stunning in its raw delivery. Schizophrenia does, once again, entail a tenuous relationship with reality. An untreated person like John Nash can not only do serious damage to himself but to those that he cares about, as shown in the movie. While the old “crazy person” shtick used to get a laugh, it now just remains a reminder of how little we knew, and know, about portraying mental illness.

The Good: Psychopathy

Of course, we can’t forget one of the best depictions of psychopathy ever, can we? There’s no ignoring Anton Chigurh from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. This chilling psychopath has no empathy, no discernible logic outside of his own, and is an unstoppable killing machine. Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Anton froze people in their seats. Many commended him for how well he portrayed proper psychopathy when it had been done to death (poorly, I might add).

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Most people think that psychopathy is anyone who might be a “raving lunatic.” Perhaps a serial killer or a crazy, manipulative ex-girlfriend. This tends not to be the case, of course. Psychopathy is, as stated by Healthy Place:

“A constellation of traits that comprises affective features, interpersonal features, as well as impulsive and antisocial behaviors. The affective features include lack of guilt, empathy, and deep emotional attachments to others; the interpersonal features include narcissism and superficial charm; and the impulsive and antisocial behaviors include dishonesty, manipulativeness, and reckless risk-taking. Although psychopathy is a risk factor for physical aggression, it is by no means synonymous with it. In contrast to individuals with psychotic disorders, most psychopaths are in touch with reality and seemingly rational. Psychopathic individuals are found at elevated rates in prisons and jails, but can be found in community settings as well.”

CLICK: Want some memes and mental illness info? READ: MILLENIALS, MEME CULTURE, AND MENTAL ILLNESS.

The Truth

Screenwriters seem to finally be getting the point that mental illness is owed a bit more accuracy than it has been given. Sure, there was representation in the pasts that did it justice like in MISERY or WINDOWS. Mental health disorders, however, have often been played for comedy. Your standard villain will often take on the traits of a psychopath to portray ‘pure evil.’  While Hollywood is free to return to its well of tropes, it stands to reason that they are doing a disservice.

As noted in this article:

A man who suffers from schizophrenia goes on a shooting spree in Times Square and later stabs a pregnant physician in the stomach. These are the opening scenes from Wonderland, a drama set in the psychiatric and emergency room units of a New York City hospital. Premiering in 2000, Wonderland was promptly canceled because of dwindling ratings and heavy criticism from mental health groups (though it was brought back in January 2009).

The series portrayed a bleak life for people with mental illness and groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) criticized its theme of hopelessness.

Anyone who has mental illness’ can tell you that it is no laughing matter. They can probably tell you that, no, they are not dangerous. They are not unpredictable, and their condition is nothing to draw comedy from.

Hopefully, this means that Hollywood will take it a bit more seriously going forward and we’ll get more interesting characters for it. It is high time that Hollywood moved on from its standard tropes and started giving audiences more interesting reality than insulting fantasy.

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