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“Madness” in the movies PDF
Wednesday, 12 August 2009 00:00

 altMental health stereotypes in films are now more negative and cruel than ever before, claims a recent report.  Characters with mental health problems are being depicted as more demotic and cruel than at any time in movie history, according to a report for Time to Change, the anti-stigma mental health campaign, published last year. The report claims that depictions haven’t moved on from the silent era, revealing that characters with a mental illness are either evil or simple, with nothing in between.

The report, Screening Madness, written by psychiatrist and film expert Dr Peter Byrne, reveals that film depictions of people with experience of mental health problems have become more damaging. “Mental health stereotypes have not changed over a century of cinema. If anything, the comedy is crueler and the deranged psycho killer even more demotic,” Dr Byrne reveals in the report. 

The key finding from the report shows that the public gets its understanding of mental illness from films, more than from any other type of media.  A YouGov survey commissioned for the report found that almost 50 per cent of the public have seen people with a mental illness acting violently in films. The survey also found that almost half of people polled (44 per cent) believe that people with a mental illness will act violently.

Citing Batman – the Dark Knight as a low point in depicting mental illness, with the violence and humour based almost entirely on a misunderstanding of schizophrenia, Dr Byrne says: “Batman describes the Joker as a schizophrenic clown, and when the film’s second hero Harvey Dent becomes “Two-Face” and embraces evil, the familiar stereotype of schizophrenia is activated.” 

Dr Byrne continues: “This is omnipresent in cinema misrepresentations… the psycho killer is immortal and sadistic, motivated by madness… in almost all psychosis films, that character will kill,” says Dr Byrne.

The report also shows that while the movie industry embraces its responsibility for depicting homosexuality and racism accurately, depictions of mental illness continue to be based on prejudice.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was named as the film most remembered for depicting someone with a mental illness acting strangely or violently, despite it being released almost 35 years ago, showing that the influence of movie stereotypes on attitudes can last a generation.  While Jim Carrey’s Me, Myself and Irene, released in 2000, “represented a new low at laughing at people with severe mental illness”, Dr Byrne says.

There are some exceptions. Daniel Craig’s portrayal in Some Voices and Russell Crowe’s A Beautiful Mind are more realistic portrayals of schizophrenia, says Dr Bryne.

Sue Baker, Director of Time to Change said: “This report highlights that movies are the main source of information that reinforces negative stereotypes of mental illness above and beyond any other form of media. We need to make it clear to directors and producers that they can still break box office records without wrecking lives.”



Paul Whitelock

Paul is a Joint Honours graduate in Spanish and German, a qualified teacher (PGCE) and has a Member of the Institute of Linguists (MIL) qualification.

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