Newswire » Culture » Hollywood and Mental Health

Hollywood and Mental Health


Hollywood and Mental Health

For many people the world can be either black or white. You conform and live, or you challenge and suffer, either way you die. You know what you know, or you don’t know it for sure. With mental health disorders it is the same thing. Those people who believe or have been told that they are not insane, tends to believe it is true and those who suffer from insanties are asked to believe that it is not a reality, but an illness. But a schizophrenic or someone with a multi personality disorder might tell you, that what they live with or experience, is as real as anybody who believes himself to be sane. Trying to explain the unexplainable or the unspeakable reality of a person who sees things differently because of mental health deterioration, a man or a woman who lives in another world as such, has been the inspiration for many movie makers and screenplay writers. It is a weird and wonderful, but shrouded in pain and realness, subject matter, that never fails to entertain.

Mental health disorders that have been used by Hollywood (the place where it began for many movie makers) include- Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder, Schizophrenia, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Schizoaffective Disorder and Compulsive Obsessive Disorder. Movies like Melancholia, Silver Linings Playbook, Psycho, Matchstick Men, Shine12 Monkeys, Spider, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fight Club and Clean, Shaven, all featured these disorders and tried to portray those who suffer from them in a most realistic and introspective way they could master. The wonderful thing about the silver screen is, is that it can take you into the world of a person who suffers from delusions or hallucinations and it is the extraordinary director that succeeds at telling the story in the way a person with a mental health disorder would want you to understand them. Putting pictures together of voices being heard or getting actors to act out the visual hallucinations a “mad” person experiences becomes a possibility in the movies.  Some film directors succeed at getting the story across, but many have also failed and ended up exaggerating. But nevertheless, they won Oscars and they made millions out of movies telling of those who are driven to murder by reasons of insanity or get violent with those they come in contact with (“White Heat” – 1950).

Actors like Jack Nicholson, Edward Norton, Olivia de Havilland, Claire Daines and Brad Pitt always “Shine” when taking on a role of a madman or woman and in most cases these actors and actresses walked away with Oscar performances and box offices hits. It is as if madness is one of the easiest and most natural things to mimic and very few actors ever fail at achieving this task. Thanks to movie makers and directors, the world has been given an opportunity to get to know the inside story so to speak; movies create an opportunity to look at the mad man or woman introspectively. But in true Hollywood style, they also overplay it sometimes and sufferers watching those movies might be left wondering if the world really sees them like this. Stigma, ignorance and negative attitudes could leave the audience with memories of mad men pushing women down staircases (“Kiss of Death” -1947, Tommy Udo won a Golden Globe for his performance of psycho killer). People are often left wondering if mad people should be left roaming freely.

In the olden days the madman was asked to roam the outskirts of the village. One such man (most probably a schizophrenic, even though possession was said to be the cause for his madness) in Biblical times were asked to take himself to the graveyard, where he lived naked and was given a “death penalty” by the other villagers for being different. These days’ words like crazy and madness is not really acceptable terminology to use anymore, it encourages stigma and stereotyping; we should refrain from saying things like “that person is mad”. The world has become a more empathetic and sympathetic place and doctors and experts now refer to mental health problems as disorders. It is a state of being that causes disharmony, chaos is born from the world of order, and the person becomes disorderly so to speak. A positive attitude towards people is a more acceptable way of looking at those who suffer and it is the movie that tells of the person’s struggle successfully, that ends up killing the stigma attached to mental health disorders, medication and hospitalisation.

Hollywood has produced so many movies since the industry first began in the 1890’s and thus so many stories have been told in the last 100 years or more; be it silent, black or white, colour, about love or war, or about racism or Armageddon. Many films succeed in impressing us, the audience, because we have just tasted something we have never experienced before, or we have just re-lived a real episode from our own lives or pasts. This is the film director’s charge; he has to make it as believable as possible, he has to draw his inspiration from real people and real dramas. St. Patrick’s University Hospital had a lecture on Mental Health in the Movies last night at the hospital. RTE’s Michael Doherty and Film Critic were there to give a presentation on Hollywood and Mental Health. A panel of guest speakers included Psychotherapist Coleman Noctor, Journalist and Film Critic Tanya Sweeney, Film Director Nick Kelly and Sorcha Lowry from SeeChange, was there to discuss movies, their own careers and experiences with the world of psychiatric illness and movie making.


The presentation and discussion was held in the lecture hall at St. Patrick’s University Hospital. Guests were greeted at the door with bags of sweets and popcorn, adding to the atmosphere of cinema. Introductions were done by Paula and Sinéad who kept the audience on their feet and on their best behaviour. Michael Doherty who works as a Film Critic for RTÉ took over from the ladies to deliver his presentation. Michael who has been a Film Critic for the last twenty years has probably seen every movie that has ever been made and he has a very keen interest in how Hollywood has been representing mental health throughout the years and has studied and written about it. His feeling is that America (Hollywood) has a shocking record of getting it wrong and that research shows that it is Hollywood that sets the agenda and the public that follows.

He showed 65 years of movies clips of movies where psychiatric illness featured as the storyline. In these clips the main character or characters all suffer from some kind of a mental health disorder, “they become the subject for derision and are portrayed as people who have violent mental health disorders”. Michael also feels that “people should be treated equally; that Hollywood often has dramatic storylines but it is not always based on fact”. Statistics has shown, contrary to the believe of many movie makers, that people who has mental health disorders are often the victims, not the perpetrators. He discussed a UK report that addresses negative movie stereotypes given to people with mental health problems. They are often depicted as violent or comical crazy people. The report claims that depictions haven’t moved on from the silent era, revealing that characters with a mental illness are either evil or simple, with nothing between.

Michael spoke about how mental health problems as a storyline like racism in “Birth of a Nation” can often get it wrong. He used the example of D.W.Griffith’s “The Maniac Cook” made in 1909, where the Chef is institutionalised, escapes and stabs an employer and ends up putting a baby in an oven. Even though you only need to go as far as the court room to realise that sometimes these things really do happen, it comes across as over exaggeration at times and paints a negative picture of what a person with a mental health disorder could end up doing to you. The first clip he showed was “Kiss of Death” with Richard Widmark, made in 1947. Here the stereo typical killer pushes the lady and her wheelchair down the stairs, empowered by his madness nothing prevents him from killing or harming an innocent woman; the negative stigma sticking out like a sore thumb, leaving us wondering if all mad people are murders with no remorse.

Other clips showed were “The Snake Pit”, a 1948 movie with Olivia de Havilland. “The Snake Pit” succeeded in getting it right according to Michael, because the issues of mental health and hospitals are put in the right context in this film and is told realistically enough.  Then there was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” starring Antony Perkins, the 1990 movie “Silence of the Lambs” with Anthony Hopkins, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” made in 1975 and Stephen King’s “Misery”. These were movies with very strong and dramatic storylines and won a string of Oscars, but did they succeed in telling the story of a real mental health disorder?

So who got it right in Hollywood then? Michael gave his “Yah” to movies like “Shine” made in 1996, “Temple Grandin” with Claire Daines, 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook”, “Patrick’s Day” released in 2014 (an Irish film that won a Shooting Star Award), “An Angel at my Table”, Frank Berry’s “I used to Live Here” (an Irish film about how  suicide can affect a community and a young 13-year-old) and then Pixar’s “Inside Out”, who Michael awarded 5 stars to. “I have been reviewing movies for twenty years and I have only given 5 movies 5 stars, Inside Out is one,” Michael said that he had many more movies that he would have loved to show and discuss but there was only 2 hours to cover thousands of movies that have used mental health problems as a theme for a movie.

The panel took over from Michael Doherty and welcomed questions and discussions from the audience; those who had questions about the way movies depict disorders enjoyed friendly answers from all the members of the panel. Journalist and Film Critic who writes for the Irish Independent and the Irish Times spoke about writing about psychiatric illnesses, but say she writes mostly about her own mental health problems. She has also done workshops at SPUH with patients who are on their way to recovery, helping them with their writing skills. These new budding writers are the future scriptwriters of the silver screen, sharing their own experiences and understanding of what a mental health disorder is and how they have learned to cope and come through it. Film maker, Nick Kelly, spoke about his new film. It’s a film about a drummer in Rock ‘n’ Roll band who suffers from bipolar. He has to make certain changes to his life. His problem is not only bipolar, but the fact that he self medicates. Nick says “characters are only interesting when they are truthful”. He also feels that Hollywood should be de-demonising movies.

Colman Noctor is a child and adolescent psychotherapist at St. Patrick’s and was also on the panel for the evening. He specialises in the treatment of anxiety and the effects of contemporary media on child development and writes for the Irish Times and the Irish Independent when he is not busy at the hospital. Sorcha Lowry from SeeChange spoke about the work SeeChange has been doing to get the public to see people with mental health problems differently and in a more positive light. SeeChange, an alliance of organisations working together through the National Stigma Reduction Partnership, are also working on programmes that could change the attitude fellow employers and work mates in the work place have when it comes to mental health. There is still a great deal of stigmatising going on in the work place and this has to be challenged. The evening ended at about 9.30 pm and I think most of us who attended would have loved to see and hear more.

The conclusion I believe, is that Hollywood sometimes get it wrong, but sometimes they get it right, but as Michael said they are smiling all the way to the bank, because madness wins Oscars and sells tickets. Let’s hope that having a mental health disorder will become an illness to be discussed with our friends, family and colleagues like you would if you had flu; after all mental health disorders are not contagious or “is it Clarice”.

Leave a Reply

© 1991-2014 Fountain Resource Group Ltd. · Registered Company Number: 193051C · RSS · Website designed by Solid Website Design