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Mental Health in Films

The recent release of Netflix’s new horror film, Bird Box has been criticised by some viewers due to the portrayal of those who suffer with mental health issues – but does the increased exposure of poor mental health help or hinder those who suffer with it in day-to-day life?

In recent years in the UK mental health has gone from a mostly taboo subject to something that some of the world’s biggest celebrities have publicly opened up about. Some of our favourite singers, sportspeople, actors and even the Prince of Wales have opened up about their experiences, and how they have coped with different aspects of mental health – making the subject generally less “embarrassing” to discuss and easier to bring up in social circles, at home or at work.

As well as a number of celebrities opening up about their experiences with their mental health, in general the subject has been explored a lot further in recent years through both films and television. Popular shows including 13 Reason’s Why and films such as Split have explored different avenues of mental health conditions, helping to raise awareness of different conditions – however, whilst these publications have received praise for raising awareness, they have also been criticised by the general public since their release.

13 Reasons Why received a lot of bad publicity in the weeks after its release, due to the revenge aspect of the series and the idea that the main character’s suicide was a direct result of other people’s actions, rather than being due to poor mental health. Mental health experts at the time of release also voiced their concerns about dramatising and/or romanticising suicide, especially in a series based around teenagers and aimed at teenage viewers.

Split on the other hand follows the story of three young girls who are kidnapped by Kevin the main character who also suffers with disassociated identity disorder, and has 23 different personalities. Whilst the film does a lot to explore the mental health condition and raise awareness, the dramatisation of the condition has been so well received. The film ends with Kevin taking on his final identity – a beast that can dodge bullets and climb walls, and is the identity that kills the kidnapped girls. A number of different viewers have voiced their concerns about how mental health is portrayed through the media and how it might affect those who struggle with their own mental health.

Bird Box is a new horror film that has gone viral in both the UK and America as the new “must see” film and was the “most watched” film in the first week of its release with over 45 million viewers. The film is based on the book by the same name, and follows the lives of a family whilst they try to escape different monsters. These monsters – if a character makes eye contact with them – cause their victims to commit suicide, unless they are suffering with a mental health issue. Criticism of the film has centred around the fact that once characters with mental health issues have looked the monsters in the eye, rather than attempting suicide, they become “evil” and join the monsters in the quest to destroy humanity.

Whilst it is only fiction, the idea that those with mental health illnesses would join the monsters against humanity has angered a number of viewers with many pointing out that mental health sufferers have been villainised. Writer Jess Joho (Mashable) wrote of the film “Instead of killing themselves in gratuitously gory ways like all the ‘normal’ characters, people with mental illnesses become literal agents of evil, obsessed with carrying out the monsters’ mission to destroy humanity.” Essentially undoing the progress made by different mental health charities and advocates.

Finding an accurate representation of poor mental health or mental illness in films and television can be difficult – however, when characters with mental health issues are often depicted as monsters or used to create fear in horror films, it is often damaging to both people who mental health issues and the publics conceptions about particular issues and conditions. Mental health charities and advocates spend a lot of time trying to help the general public understand more about mental health, to encourage society to discuss the once “taboo” subject and to take away the “fear” that is often surrounded by mental health – when a horror film uses mental health as the antagonist to be scared of, it can be extremely unbeneficial to their work.

Whilst it might seem that mental health is only ever depicted as a bad thing in the media, there are a number of different television shows and films, including; This is Us, Parks and Recreation, Shameless (UK and US versions) and Please Like Me, have all been praised for their accurate depiction of a variety of conditions, without dramatising conditions or portraying them as something “bad” or “scary”.

In the end, spreading awareness of mental health issues is rarely a bad thing, however when mental health is dramatised or stereotyped in films and series it can be harming to the public’s generalisation of particular conditions or issues. If you or someone you know is suffering with a mental health condition, learning the difference between the facts and what you have learned through different forms of media, can help you to understand more about different mental health conditions, as well as offer better support.

If you’re having issues with your mental health, therapy could be the right way to help you get back on track and feeling more like you again. My Online Therapy is the UK’s first professional psychology platform, offering a range of different therapies through a number of different professional therapists – from your mobile phone or hand-held device. Unlike more traditional forms of therapy there are no long waiting lists or commutes like through the NHS, and is much more affordable than therapy in a bricks and mortar clinic. Learn more about our app and how we can help you to be matched with the right therapist for you on our website.