Mental illness is often used as a sort of deus ex machina in television shows. Need a reason for why this person went on a killing spree? Turns out he’s schizophrenic. What would make that person burn down a house? They’re bipolar, that’s what. The audience all has a moment of “oh, that makes sense.” No further explanation is required after that. Then later on down the road when schizophrenia is mentioned, the free association of the viewer’s mind connects schizophrenia with mass-murdering. Voila, it’s the mass-murderer’s disease.
A recent survey reported by Psychiatric News shows “that 61 percent of Americans believe that people with schizophrenia are violent toward others.” While this assumption isn’t linked to media portrayals of mental illness, it shows that television shows and movies need to be more sensitive and realistic with mentally ill characters.
Let’s take a look at how some other mental illnesses are portrayed in the realm of entertainment:
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
The tagline of TV’s Monk is “The Defective Detective.” Adrian Monk, the titular character, is a former detective who had to leave the force because his obsessive-compulsive symptoms became too pronounced. In the show he works as a private consultant to the police. Monk’s compulsions put an emphasis on cleanliness, order, symmetry, and safety. According to Health24.com, this array of compulsions is inaccurate. Generally, OCD sufferers are fixated on one compulsion instead of many. In this way, the show exaggerates OCD for dramatic and comedic effects.
What I do appreciate about Monk is that Adrian Monk is the focus of the show so viewers are able to see every facet of his life and how his struggle affects it. Some of the best moments of the show involve Monk talking to his psychiatrist who, while somewhat of a caricature of a mental health professional, communicates well with Monk in an attempt to develop strategies to improve his personal and professional life.
Having this wide view of Monk’s life allows for the viewer to develop empathy with the character.
When we see Monk in an episode getting a chalkboard eraser thrown at him by a high school student while he obsessives over writing his name on the board, we laugh but we also feel for him. We want to be there to shake the kid who did that and say, “Hey! You don’t know what it’s like!”
Poor Toby Flenderson of the American version of The Office. No other cast member seems to sympathize with him or even like him. He always looks sad and lost and it appears that everyone else displays a lack of emotional intelligence and they don’t give his symptoms of depression any legitimacy. Branch manager Michael Scott has this to say about Toby, “Toby is in HR, which technically means he works for corporate, so he’s really not a part of our family. Also, he’s divorced, so he’s really not a part of his family.”
Toby is a supporting character, so we don’t really learn much about him, other than sad details. However, the nice thing about Toby’s portrayal is that a lot of the humor comes from the people he interacts with being overly dismissive. We’re laughing at their ignorance, not at Toby’s depression. While viewers don’t see the more visceral and heart-wrenching aspects of depression with Toby, we still sympathize with him, often saying to ourselves, “Poor Toby.”
On the TV show Homeland, the character of Carrie Mathison battles symptoms of bipolar disorder while working as a high-level CIA operative. She goes through manic highs and depressive lows. Similar to Monk, we see Carrie struggle in her professional and personal life. She’s forced to get medication secretly because if the CIA finds out she’s medicating, they’ll take away her clearance. Often the manic highs caused by her disorder are the moments in the show where Carrie is doing her most effective investigating.
What’s great about this depiction of bipolar disorder is that Carrie Mathison is a high-functioning individual who happens to have this illness. Showing a mentally ill individual basically saving the world is a welcome change. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) praised Homeland for doing “one of the best jobs of portraying mental illness in modern television today with compassion, clarity and responsibility attached.” NAMI’s main criticism is (spoiler alert!) the decision that called for Carrie to undergo electroconvulsive therapy or ECT without experimenting with other medications first.
However accurate these depictions of mental illness are, one thing worth noting is that they’re putting mental illness in the spotlight. Doing so allows for a conversation about mental illness to take place within the pop culture realm. I believe that moving forward, television and movies will continue to do a better job of putting characters with mental illnesses in roles that don’t lampoon or demonize. Viewers will empathize with individuals that have mental illness and see them for what they are: normal human beings.