Hollywood is renowned for its movies and TV shows. It has been the epitome of the entertainment industry for decades, offering the power to entertain, educate, reveal important truths, share stories, and bring people together. Great films allow us to be so completely immersed in the movie or show that we temporarily forget about other problems or stressors in life. As a result, we can experience various emotions during one sitting. One of the most beautiful concepts that film and TV offer is perspective. While it may be challenging to see and understand our family dynamics, personal conflicts & inner dialogue, or life in general from our own lens, characters and themes on the screen allow us to see various storylines from a different perspective. Perspective shifts are significant because they allow us to see and understand truths that we wouldn’t be able to embrace from our lens alone. Mental illness, for instance, is a topic that has carried a stigma in our culture for some time. However, since the entertainment industry is portraying and discussing mental health more in recent years, specifically through film and TV, people are beginning to understand it as a topic that isn’t taboo but rather common and relatable.
Mental Health Themes in Hollywood Productions
The entertainment industry in Hollywood has increased the volume and visibility of movies and TV shows that portray mental health in storylines, along with pairing projects with awareness campaigns and resources for viewers. Additionally, actors/actresses have elevated conversations surrounding mental health have by opening up about their personal experiences and foundations, such as Taraji P. Henson’s Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation. Taraji and others have started using their platforms to grow the public conversation around mental health due to their own mental health journeys or those of close family members. As the conversation continues and we see more real-life examples of mental health challenges being addressed, we can expect mental health themes in Hollywood to become the norm. With new storylines emerging about such a complex topic, producers and directors have begun consulting with mental health professionals to ensure accuracy and sensitivity in projects, along with sometimes having professionals on set for supporting cast and crew during projects that include heavier subjects, such as Ava DuVernay’s, When They See Us.
Analyzing the Accuracy and Sensitivity of Mental Health Portrayals in Popular Movies and TV Shows
Writers of many TV shows have begun inserting characters who are therapists or scenes involving characters in a therapy session. In many cases, these shows have helped normalize therapy as it has been depicted in ways that destigmatize mental health disorders. When therapy is falsely represented, however, it can be very detrimental and validate myths and inaccurate assumptions about therapy. It’s important to recognize that each person’s experience in treatment is not cookie-cutter and will vary depending on the person and their therapist. Unprisoned, a show starring Kerry Washington on Hulu, follows a therapist (Kerry Washington) and single mom whose life is turned upside down when her dad gets out of prison and moves in with her and her teenage son. The show highlights childhood trauma and how it shows up in adulthood. In various parts of some episodes, we see a vivid illustration of Paige’s metaphorical inner child, depicted by an actual child, who Jordyn McIntosh plays. Jordyn’s character appears in various segments of the show and voices Paige’s innermost feelings that she can’t express out loud.
Shrinking, an Apple TV series starring Jason Segel and Harrison Ford, follows Jimmy (Jason Segel), a grieving therapist who tries a new approach with his patients; unfiltered honesty. He disregards training and ethics to radically change people’s lives, including his own. This series takes more of a humorous look at the therapeutic process, specifically from a therapist’s perspective.
The 2016 film, Split, stirred up controversy over its portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) in the main character, Kevin, played by James McAvoy. In the movie, Kevin kidnaps three teenage girls, and we see him switching in and out of many identities. At the end of the movie, Kevin switches to an identity that is represented by a vicious beast. Many people boycotted the film, claiming it promoted negative stereotypes and portrayed false connections between mental illness and violence. For some, it was seen as furthering the stigma around DID and furthering the fear of mental illnesses.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), DID is described as a disruption of identity by two or more distinct personality states or an experience of possession. The DSM contains specific qualifiers and symptoms that an individual must have to be officially diagnosed with DID. Besides certain areas of exaggeration for cinematic purposes, such as the final scenes, the film did an excellent job portraying truths about an individual’s experience with DID. Kevin displayed utterly different personalities, behaviors, and mannerisms, along with showing gaps in his memory. Scenes with his therapist accurately depicted the ambiguity within the field when treating the disorder. The film brought additional awareness and attention to mental illness, specifically DID. At the end of the film, one girl is spared from Kevin’s wrath after he finds scars all over her body, which alludes to the fact that she was abused as a kid, just like he was. As he realizes this similarity, he chooses not to hurt her. This final scene highlights one of the speculated probable causes of DID: an illness caused by traumatic events. When one undergoes traumatic events, the mind and body will take on adaptations to feel and ensure safety. The final scene was a pivotal moment in the film’s depiction of DID, as it revealed that Kevin wasn’t a monster, nor should he be identified by his disorder alone, but that he was a man who had traumatic experiences in his childhood and needed to learn about and work through how his mind and body has adapted in attempts to protect him.
What was most enjoyable from a therapist’s perspective in the 2019 film, Joker, was the creators’ shedding light on what appeared to be the root of his issues. Throughout the movie, we see that Arthur (Joker) was bullied, witnessed, and suffered from abuse as a child and never experienced a nurturing relationship or environment. He was deprived of three necessities for foundational mental health: being loved, seen, and heard. At the root of many mental illnesses, personality disorders, and traumas lies a significant disconnect in all or one of those foundations. Therefore, highlighting the Joker’s story in a way that shows how and why he began deviant behaviors and got his nickname “Joker” is significant. The traumas unveiled were accurate and standard in many mental illnesses.
The Impact of Media Representation on the Public Perception of Mental Health
Media representation of mental health and illness has dramatically impacted the public’s perception. Society did not discuss it much in the past, and it was greatly stigmatized, especially in certain cultures. However, we are transitioning to a new era where mental illness and mental health treatment are beginning to be more understood and accepted. There is still a lot of work that we, as a society, must do to continue educating and pursuing the availability of mental health care. Nevertheless, change is happening and people are becoming more widely aware of the importance and value of treatment, because we are hearing peers, families, athletes, and celebrities discussing mental health. When someone opens up about their mental health, it liberates the next person. Over the past couple of years, there have been great strides in the mental health field and the representation it receives in the media.
Mental health professionals should be consulted during the production process to preserve the integrity of the field and ensure that what’s being portrayed is accurate. It is also beneficial to the cast and crew to have someone on set whom they can speak with when needed, especially for heavy projects. The collaboration of mental health and film/tv professionals has the potential to be a powerful force not only for entertainment purposes, but also for revelation and healing.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.