Mental Health on Film, Speaking from Personal Experience

Mental health and how it is portrayed on film has always been an especially touchy subject for me. It has always been difficult for me to try to talk about the way people handle it on film because of my own autism and the fact there’s no “definite” portrait about how people on the spectrum truly behave. There isn’t a definite portrait because such portrait is absolutely impossible, but that is just besides the point. The point is, when you look oftentimes at how films portray mental health on film, it always seems to be within a negative connotation.

I’ve written for a friend of mine about how characters who can be read as having autism speak more for our own experiences than characters explicitly on the spectrum. On my own blog I’ve also written a piece about the perception of autism on film, and the negative and positive impact that it has left within my life. But I’m not here to talk specifically about how autism is portrayed on film, rather instead about the challenge of getting down to the bone of the experience of someone who evidently has mental health problems without feeling like a stereotyped portrait of such.

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Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. © The Saul Zaentz Company

The most obvious example that comes to mind regarding a depiction of mental health that recognizes such people in a positive outlook is a rather well-known film, it’s Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This has been one of my own favourite films for a long while, for even if Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy isn’t a crazy person (the premise of the film is based around his experiences in a mental health institution after he pretends to be insane, to have a relaxed background) he only wanted to seek the best for his comrades in the institution. But all of these people know that they are within limits because of an authority figure who intimidates them at all costs. It seems easy enough for me, because of the fact that in Randle McMurphy, what has come forth isn’t merely just a story about “overcoming” what’s wrong with you. It doesn’t boil everything down to a conclusion so dumbfounded and too simple, but McMurphy sees these people as capable of more than what they’d been led to believe. Because he sees them as human beings, and treats them as such even to the cost of a greater pain.

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Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. © Imagine Entertainment

Now for a portrait that feels more along the lines of a stereotype, take a look at Russell Crowe playing John Nash in the biopic A Beautiful Mind. For what is supposed to be a true story, I don’t feel the same impact being left upon me. I don’t feel the same impact because I can look at Nash and just think to myself, “Oh, he’s just that other socially awkward guy who happens to be a genius.” There isn’t really much more to his character other than that, and to say the least, I also think that the film is a dreadful bore. It’s a terrible example of how mental health is represented on film because the film isn’t even centered around what he experiences. It just seems centered on others, blaming his differences as the reason for his alienation and it feels silencing.

It’s frustrating enough that films often go for a damaging portrait of mental health on film because even positive portraits seem to abide by a stereotype. Sure, we have all of these films come around about serial killers or obsessive artists, but this isn’t how the harm starts. The harm starts with films that take mental health and merely set it up as a scapegoat for why everything has gone wrong (I’m looking at you, Hide and Seek). It’s frustrating because the result is that people living with evident mental health issues end up becoming alienated from the world. Even portraits that try to make people of our sort seem “relatable” a la Perks of Being a Wallflower add to the problem, because they still limit our problems merely to the shallow. We’re hipsters because we listen to Sonic Youth, Galaxie 500, Cocteau Twins, or The Smiths as they say – I love all bands dearly, only speaking for the self-satisfied tone that writer-director Stephen Chbosky elicits from the film. It relegates our elusiveness to shallow differences that only speak more for people that think they know the experience rather than people who live through it, and it only ever came off as trite.

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Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. © Paramount Pictures.

But in the worst case scenario, we have Forrest Gump. It isn’t in my position to jump at people who like this film, but from my experience as an autistic teen walking through high school, this was incredibly painful. As much as bad portraits of autism like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close or I am Sam come around, this is where I feel the very worst traits in portraying mental health on film can be exhibited explicitly. It explicitly portrays a character with a mental deficiency taking over history in the worst sense, because it also uses its titular character’s mental capacities to insinuate racism and sexism. It isn’t so obvious at first, but when you piece everything together from the opening of Gump flat out telling a black woman he was named after a KKK leader, to his obvious whiteness taking credit for what black people had influenced in American history – even supposedly “positive” portraits end up becoming more harmful. It was terrifying enough for me, putting up with the torment of being called “Forrest Gump” because of the fact my thought process never worked the same way my peers would do so. It was a name that scarred me, I can’t watch this film properly anymore without feeling an intense hatred arising.

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Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine in Being There. © United Artists

So how exactly should films go about with portraying mental health? It isn’t an easy question for me to answer. It isn’t easy because we know already that films touching upon such subject matter have put themselves within a danger zone. Because it is such a wide spectrum, there will never be a definitive answer. From all the neurotic, paranoid, and the suicidal characters we loved and recognized – sometimes we want to ask ourselves how well do they speak for people who experience such in their everyday lives. I don’t wish to speak on behalf of all, but it is still something I ponder about with the recognizably stereotyped portraits of mental health a la Rain Man. It isn’t just what they speak for the people they are portraying, it’s what they send off for people who want a greater understanding of their well-being that calls for more attention. If this was the first you’ve seen from me writing about mental health on film, I promise that it won’t be the last.

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