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Behavioural Science

Is Media Getting Better at Portraying Mental Illness?

During his acceptance speech for Lead Actor in a Drama at the recent Emmy Awards, Rami Malek dedicated his win “to the Elliots of the world.” Malek was referencing his character in the drama Mr. Robot: simultaneously an isolated outsider, a young man who has dealt with tragic loss, and one who constantly battles mental illness.

Though we can’t be sure, it’s very possible Malek was talking about that last part. Mental illness is incredibly common. However, we know that just because something is experienced by many people doesn’t mean that its always well represented or accurately and fairly portrayed in media and art, as evidenced by the way race and gender issues are often portrayed stereotypically or in poor taste.

When it comes to mental illness, is that changing? In particular, television seems to be a place where an increasing focus is being put on mental illness. In addition to Mr. Robot, shows like Orange is the New Black, You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and UnReal are just some of the current shows which prominently feature either characters or storylines centered on dealing with mental illnesses. Perhaps what’s challenging about portraying mental illness accurately and responsibly in media is that the term itself, “mental illness”, isn’t a catch-all. There is no community that is immune to mental illness—it touches all of us—and there are many types of illnesses, each with their own different symptoms and treatments.


“I think we’re seeing a lot more interesting approaches that respect the diversity,” said Dr. Gary Belkin, Executive Deputy Commissioner, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene while speaking at the Paley Center for Media in New York. “There is no single correct narrative.”

There is a ubiquitousness, Dr. Belkin said, that does not seem to come through in media and artistic portrayals. He specifically mentioned Orange is the New Black, the prison drama which seems to underrepresent the portion of a prison population which would suffer from mental illness. Uzo Aduba’s “Crazy Eyes” is one such character that we’re aware suffers from mental illness, but it’s a lot more common in prison than the show would lead you to believe. TV and film critic and panel moderator Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out that a number of the show’s characters may show signs of mental illness, but aren’t explicitly portrayed as such.

Perhaps the fact that Orange is the New Black could be looked at as, in one way, failing, should be taken as a sign of the progress that has been made in the standards at which art and media are being held to. Orange is the New Black has been rightly praised for its committed racial and sexual diversity and measured storytelling therein. Not every piece of art can be everything. And nothing is perfect. But perhaps we’re watching more carefully now.

The series Monk, which aired from 2002-09, starred Tony Shalhoub as a detective who suffers from severe obsessive compulsive disorder. Monk was unquestionably a hit, but did everyone who watched it get an honest look into the life of someone living with OCD? Or was Adrian Monk a caricature? Back in 2013, Fletcher Wortmann of Psychology Today wrote, “Monk’s gimmick – and it would be incredibly generous to call it anything more than a gimmick – is that Tony Shalhoub’s titular ‘defective detective’ suffers from severe OCD. Hilariously inconvenient, painfully superficial, improbably untreatable OCD, which always involves counting and cleaning (because those are Hollywood’s very favorite OCD symptoms), and which can’t be managed, or even explained accurately to exasperated bystanders, because then there couldn’t be a show.”

Wortmann goes on to argue that Monk seems to have gotten its cues about OCD from other depictions in television and film. One such depiction that comes to our mind is Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets—a writer who suffers from OCD, avoiding cracks in the sidewalk, bringing his own plastic utensils to his favorite restaurant. The film’s final shot, in which Nicholson’s character is revealed to have been standing on a crack in the sidewalk just as he’s finally gotten the girl, in some way suggests that the character’s OCD isn’t that big of a deal. Love cures all.

If perhaps we’ve put an increased scrutiny on what happens on screen, today we’re also more aware of who is behind the camera rather than only who we see on screen. There is increased attention on racial and gender diversity amongst creators of media, but not as much when it comes to mental illness. With mental illness as prevalent and common as it is, it’s likely that there are a number of folks in a writer’s room who suffer from some form of mental disorder. But stigmas still persist. Also speaking on the panel, Warren Leight, writer and showrunner of Law and Order: SVU and formerly of In Treatment, spoke to the importance of consulting mental health professionals and experts when working on characters and stories that involve mental illness.

“I go over this all the time. If you’re looking around and everyone looks like you, everyone’s gonna be hitting the same note,” Leight said, but also acknowledged that it’s very difficult to get it perfectly right, all the time. The key is being honest about the choices you make, and consulting professionals can often help creators stay informed.

“I want to know when I’m making a mistake,” Leight said. “I want it to be our choice, not that we screwed up. You cannot completely capture reality in 30 minutes that takes you two days to shoot. But you at least need to know when you’re cheating,” Leight said.

Though progress may be happening, much art still “screws up” when it comes to mental illness (insofar as a subjective medium can be considered to have “screwed up”.) In television and film, the connection between mental illness and committing violent acts is quite common. Even Mr. Robot, a show that seems to be careful and honest in its depictions and to its characters can be viewed as perpetuating this stereotype. Mr. Robot ended its second season with the reveal that Elliot is essentially planning a terrorist attack. In many ways, Mr. Robot is heavily influenced by Fight Club, another instance where a character with mental illness is portrayed as uncontrollably violent. It’s clear that Mr. Robot, the character portrayed by Christian Slater, is the show’s version of Tyler Durden. In both cases, it’s the main character’s secondary personality that’s making them do bad things.

The truth, however, which Dr. Belkin pointed out, is that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than perpetrators. It’s not that an individual piece of art can’t depict a mentally ill person who is prone to commit violent acts, or that a work which does has made a mistake or is automatically offensive. But that this depiction is so common in art can only help to keep the stigma afloat.

This is not to say that there isn’t some good out there. In You’re The Worst, Aya Cash’s Gretchen suffers from depression. It puts her relationship with Jimmy (Chris Geere) on rocky ground, partially because she hid it from him until she no longer could, and also because Jimmy doesn’t quite understand what she’s going through. In one way, Season 2 ends on a bit of a sappy note—Jimmy deciding to build a fort around the seemingly-comatose Gretchen, cuddling up with her and letting her know he’s there for her. But the moment feels earned, because earlier in the season Gretchen tells Jimmy “You can’t fix me” after multiple attempts by Jimmy to do exactly that. It seems Jimmy has learned that Gretchen’s condition isn’t merely a funk that she can simply snap out of by having a fun day. And there is no romantic moment that happens over a crack in the sidewalk.

There’s no doubt that television and film can do a better job with its depictions of mental illness. The question then, perhaps, is not easily answerable: what responsibility does art have? What should art do, if anything? To many, art should reflect and comment on us—our culture, communities, history. It should reflect humanity. For those who believe that’s the goal of art, those who create television and film would do well to take a closer look at how their art forms have portrayed mental illness.

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