When Entertainment Isn’t Entertaining: Mental Health Stigmas
Halloween is a holiday that can perpetuate cruel myths about mental health challenges. While stereotypes of those with mental health challenges can be rooted in Halloween traditions, they extend beyond the holiday. The entertainment and video game industry pick up the divisive mental health stereotypes often found in Halloween regalia. Some dread the thought of Halloween because of the representation of mental illness as savage.
Movie or video game displays can portray mental illness as violent and dangerous. The portrayal of mental health disorders as hazardous and scary can affect how people view mental health disorders. The stereotypes can also create a fear of revealing mental health disorders to others.
Common Mental Health Stereotypes
Too often, mental illness is portrayed as unfavorable. Here are a few examples of common descriptions in movies, TV shows, or video games:
- A person in a straitjacket with wild hair or blood on the jacket
- A padded room
- A person in a catatonic state
- A person ranting and raving
- Homicidal tendencies
- Quick fixes to issues such as anorexia or bulimia
Mental Illness as Entertainment
The entertainment and video game industry uses mental health challenges as a prop for their storylines. The stigmatization of mental health disorders perpetuates unfavorable representation of mental health disorders. Another consequence of those with mental health disorders’ negative expression is the anxiety associated with sharing a mental health disorder. Their form of entertainment lists a few of the most notable characters.
Mental health disorders are depicted in several movies. Horror movies are exceptionally versed in using mental health disorders to ramp up the violence and explain away homicidal tendencies. The following films portray either overtly or subtly mental health disorders negatively.
- The Joker: a character from Batman comics and movies. Recently, the Joker has gained popularity in his own right. The movie Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix depicts the Joker as a violent, dangerous person. While some initially will diagnose this reincarnation of the Joker as schizophrenic, others in psychology disagree. A consensus held that any depiction of The Joker is a grossly misleading portrayal of mental illness.
- Harley Quinn: a character from the Batman comics who emerged as a fan favorite. She is a main character in Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. Her character shows signs of multiple personality disorder, homicidal tendencies, Stockholm syndrome, and possibly a psychotic disorder. In her case, these mental health challenges are depicted as brutal and dangerous.
- Michael Myers: the movie Halloween doesn’t give Michael a diagnosis. We know he was placed in a mental health facility when he was young because he committed violent acts. After he escaped the facility, he returned to terrorize his hometown.
- Norman Bates: Alfred Hitchcock’s story of a man who lives with and talks to his deceased mother. The movie hints at mental illness but doesn’t delve too far into the topic. Some believe Norman Bates could have Dissociative Identity Disorder. Many horror fans think Psycho was the beginning of the horror genre because the main character suffered from some form of a mental health disorder. Psycho references the serial killer Ed Gein.
- Hannibal Lechter: Silence of the Lambs portrays Hannibal as a highly intelligent, refined man. His manners smooth over his propensity to kill, yet he is a resident at a hospital for the “criminally insane” due to his cannibalism. Hannibal Lechter is another character based on Ed Gein.
- Jack Torrance: The Shining’s main character Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic who slowly spirals down. In the story, he is plagued by hallucinations, a personality change, and homicidal tendencies.
- Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy Krueger isn’t alive. He haunts the dreams of the children. When the children are sleeping, he can enter their dreams to torture and kill them. When Freddy was alive, he was a violent criminal. The movie doesn’t go into depth about his mental illness, but it is strongly suggested he has a form of mental illness.
- Lizzie McGuire: in an episode of the show Lizzie McGuire, one of the characters is portrayed as having an eating disorder because she thought she was too fat. Once her eating disorder was known to her friends, they talked to her, and the eating disorder disappeared.
- Pretty Little Liars: one of the characters talks about her struggle with bulimia and how she overcame it.
These are not an accurate portrayal of eating disorders. The National Institute of Mental Health states, “Eating disorders are serious biologically-influenced mental illnesses, not fads.”
A study by Samuel Shapiro, MD, and Merrill Rotter, MD, researched the prevalence of mental health disorders in video games. They found:
“Twenty‐three of the 96 surveyed games depicted at least one character with mental illness. Forty‐two characters were identified as portraying mental illness, with most characters classified under a “homicidal maniac” stereotype. However, many characters did not reflect cinema stereotypes and were subcategorized based on shared traits. Video games contain frequent and varied portrayals of mental illness, with depictions most commonly linking mental illness to dangerous and violent behaviors.”
Immersing yourself with horror, slasher, or a form of entertainment that misrepresents mental health disorders can hurt those with mental health disorders. Take some time to stop and think about the movies, tv shows, or video games depicting mental health disorders as threatening and violent. These images can prevent people from seeking help for their mental health disorders. The depictions also perpetuate the myth that those with mental health disorders are violent and dangerous.
The damage done by prejudiced portrayals of mental health disorders continues to place mental health disorders in a precarious position. Many don’t feel like they can come forward. Still, it is necessary to seek help if you think you are experiencing a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. Seeking mental health care doesn’t make you anything like the characters in the movies, TV, or video games. Engaging in group therapy or individual therapy can provide positive tools to aid you in living with your mental health disorder. At Achieve Medical Center, we encourage those with questions about mental health disorders to contact us. Our goal is to provide you with answers and the help you need to live your best life. We know it is difficult to decide to seek help and can be intimidating talking with someone. We are here to help you understand and work with you to gain the essential knowledge in beginning therapy. Contact us at (858) 221-0344.