The Stigmatisation of Mental Illness in Hollywood Films

mental illness

Mental illness is often highly stigmatised in movies and television. People who have legitimate mental health conditions are unfairly portrayed in many Hollywood films. One particular example of the harsh depiction of someone with mental illness is M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Split. In the movie, James McAvoy plays a villain who has 24 distinct personalities, some of whom are named Dennis. Patricia, Hedwig, The Beast, Kevin, Wendell, Crumb, Barry, Orwell, and Jade. McAvoy has dissociative identity disorder (DID). He kidnaps and tortured three female characters in an underground bunker with no windows. The film was hugely successful, but unfortunately, the portrayal of McAvoy’s character stigmatises those who live with DID.

Inaccurate Portrayals of People That Have a Mental Illness

DID (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) is a significant mental illness where the individual experiences trauma as a young child and as a coping mechanism develops a set of different identities. These alternate identities help the individual disassociate from their pain and handle the abuse that happened to them. People with DID are not inherently evil individuals. They can live healthy lives if they get the correct treatment. Moreover, research has underscored that for those living with dissociative disorders, involvement in the criminal justice system is low and symptoms do not predict criminal behaviour. Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s film stigmatises these people and doesn’t give an accurate portrayal of those living with DID. And Split is not the only film in which that occurs.

There are many other horror movies and thrillers that paint the mentally ill as dangerous. In the 2011 film The Roommate, the characters Sara and Rebecca start college together. Sara is portrayed as neurotypical, while Rebecca is seen as strange. Rebecca starts to develop an obsession with Sara, starts behaving erratically, and eventually murders Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend. The audience finds out that Rebecca has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Based on the film, we are led to believe that people with these mental illnesses are dangerous. Mental health experts have, likewise, criticised the 2019 film Joker for making the misinformed association between severe mental illness and extreme acts of violence.

In reality, people who have bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are no more likely to be violent than the general population, unless the abuse of alcohol or drugs is involved. Yet even in the case of mentally ill patients who have substance abuse issues, their rates of violent behaviour are no higher than someone from the general population who also abuses substances. The truth is that people with mental illness are more likely to be a danger to themselves than to others and are more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator of it.

Accurate Portrayals of People With Mental Illness

Though many films showcase people with mental illness in a negative light, other movies show a more realistic portrayal of those with mental health conditions. For example, A Beautiful Mind (2001), starring Russel Crowe, shows a mathematical genius who is living with paranoid schizophrenia. The audience gets to see what it’s like to view the world through Crow’s eyes. We understand how delusions appear, and what the character believes to be true versus what is reality. The man isn’t seen as dangerous but rather living with a real mental health condition. In the film Welcome to Me (2014), Kristen Wiig portrays a character living with borderline personality disorder (BPD). In the movie, she chooses to go off her medication. She spends a lot of money investing in a talk show, where she can voice her opinions to the world. Though the film is funny, it shows that a person with BPD can have mood swings, volatile relationships, but still be kind and loving.

The Stigma is Real – That’s Why Therapy Matters

We have a long way to go as far as stigma and the media. If you are living with a mental health condition, one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to seek therapy. Don’t let stigma get in the way of you getting better. Therapy can also help you address self-stigma and public stigma and the way in which these both affect your mental health. Whether you seek the help of a local counsellor or an online therapist, the most crucial thing is getting the support and guidance that you need. The media wants to portray those living with mental illness as dangerous much of the time, and it’s not true. With the guidance of a therapist, people with mental health conditions can live healthy and productive lives. It’s just as important to take care of your mental health as it is to manage your physical well-being. You can learn a lot from working with a caring therapist who understands mental health issues. Your quality of life will improve, and you can show others that it’s possible to be a good person while managing a mental illness.


Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health-related topics. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

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