This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Psychopathology course during Fall 2014. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Mental Health.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular class of mental disorders.
Schizophrenia in the Media vs. Real Life by Alexandra Logan
There you are, watching your favorite psychological thriller, eating popcorn and sipping on soda. You’re enticed by the plot and the characters as they dramatically interact with each other. Odds are you’re not thinking “is this really what a psychological disorder is like?” or “are the symptoms of this disorder always present or do they fluctuate?” No, you’re probably too mesmerized by the characters and what violent act they’re going to do next, which is great…unless you work in mental health and are worried about negative stereotypes.
One disorder that is often misconstrued in Hollywood is Schizophrenia and the other psychotic disorders on the schizophrenia spectrum. In fact, movie portrayals of people with mental illness often perpetuate negative stereotypes. A review of 41 movies (released between 1990 and 2010) that featured at least one main character with schizophrenia found that most characters engaged in dangerous or violent behaviors toward themselves or others, and nearly a third engaged in homicidal behavior. When most people on the street are asked what they know about Schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders, they answer with some kind of negative portrayal that Hollywood has implemented in our minds. Some common myths that are perpetrated in the media are that people with mental illness are violent, unpredictable, untreatable and they’re evil.
Why is this? Why does the entertainment industry feel the need to entertain us with false representations of a real disorder that is negatively impacting people’s lives? Nobody would ever think of cancer as a disease that turns someone into a villain or frightening murderer. Schizophrenia is just as much a disease as cancer, but the horrific twist the media places on it makes it seem ominous. We as a society eat this up. We love seeing mentally unstable characters in movies chase “normal” characters around with a chainsaw. This is why the media continues to feed us these misconstrued stories. What some see as enjoyment and entertainment can actually put a great deal of distress on those who have schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.
“It is certainly alarming that many media representations of schizophrenia are sensationalized, suggesting the risk is far greater than in reality,” as Ms. Hocking said. Such irresponsible media reporting causes unnecessary distress to the majority of people with schizophrenia who lead peaceful lives, having a negative effect on how they feel about themselves and how well they are accepted by others. The fear of negative stigma can prevent individuals from seeking the treatment they need. The social constructs, which the media and Hollywood profit off of, makes the reality of the disorder worse for those who are suffering from it.
Violence and crime are the biggest misconceptions that the media relates to schizophrenia. In fact, “one in one hundred people will experience schizophrenia but the lifetime risk of someone with schizophrenia seriously harming or killing another person is calculated to be just .005%”. We tend to stigmatize the mentally ill as violent, murderous or criminal because that is what we have been conditioned to believe.
Don’t believe me? Think about movies where certain characters have schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder. Here are a few examples to help you out: Black Swan, Shutter Island, Obsessed, and Friday the 13th. Are the characters in these movies violent and/or frightening? Yes, yes they are. These are just a few of the many films and TV shows that display violent and terrifying mentally ill characters. In reality, “research suggests that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.” Individuals suffering from schizophrenia or another mental illness are almost automatically seen as threats and therefore are usually the victims of violence, and undeserved violence at that.
Characters in the media who have schizophrenia are typically portrayed as unpredictable. In a sense they can and will “go crazy” at any moment. Everyone around these individuals must be on guard in order to stay safe and not get attacked. This is, again, not realistic. In fact, the vast majority of people with schizophrenia, when undergoing treatment, lead pretty ordinary lives.
Another misconception is that characters with schizophrenia or a related disorder don’t get better. No matter how much love their family gives or how hard their therapist works, there will be no progress. Of course, not all movies or shows depict this belief, but it is a popular trope in the media. However, even people with a severe disorder like schizophrenia can be treated effectively and can fit in well with their community if they are allowed to. Even though the disorder is not curable, it is usually treatable and, when utilizing the correct treatment, individuals can reduce their symptom severity. They can lead pretty normal lives and can be contributors to their communities.
So, this leads us the myth that all schizophrenic individuals’ are evil. Obviously, when we see a character that is violent, has a criminal nature, is unpredictable in their attacks and is untreatable, this would lead us to believe that they are all-together evil. Just thinking about the character of Mike Myers explains this. He is believed to have schizophrenia with catatonia. Myers is definitely a character that is portrayed as evil. Not just evil but supernaturally skilled. He can catch up with his victims every time even though he’s only walking and they are running! This is purely a delusion that the media has concocted. The truth of the matter is individuals living with schizophrenia, and any other mental disorder, are not evil…but the way they’re portrayed by the media is.
So, next time you go to see the new Hollywood thriller and a character in it has schizophrenia, just remember that what you’re viewing is more than likely a false portrayal It is a misconception fabricated by Hollywood to give the average customer a thrill. Those misconceptions that you’re paying for could also be harmful to the livelihood of someone actually living with this disorder. I’m not saying to avoid all movies and shows that incorrectly depict schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders but be more knowledgeable about the lies and don’t buy into Hollywood’s ideas.