Article: How cinema can help us to value people with mental illnesses

With the forthcoming release of Eternal Beauty, film critic Sophie Monks Kaufman looks at the portrayal of mental health in cinema and why its accurate representation is so important. 

“The thing I hate most about the stigmatisation of such mental illnesses is that the person may be seen solely in terms of their illness.” Professor Paul Fletcher is an expert on psychosis and schizophrenia, Professor of Health Neuroscience at University of Cambridge and a practising psychiatrist. “Everything they do may be interpreted in these terms. Their thoughts and experiences become undervalued and ignored.”

Fletcher’s professional path has led him to team up with non-scientists with useful things to say about the nature of mental illness and mental distress, leading to collaborations on the BAFTA-winning computer game Hellblade and now with Craig Roberts on his forthcoming film Eternal Beauty, a character drama starring Sally Hawkins as Jane, who suffers from schizophrenia, but is presented with a lovely, distinct and nuanced nature that is nothing to do with her illness.

“I’ve learned quickly that when talented people from the arts feel that they have something useful to say about mental illness, some story to tell, it’s best to listen to them and learn what I can,” says Fletcher, who highlights the importance of cultural works that push back on the negative stereotypes that still dominate stories about mental illness today. “Madness is often used to drive the plot forward in films, to give motivation to a two-dimensional character which can be a simple convenient trope that encourages the view that madness is all there is to this person.”

The dangers of inaccuracies

His words are reinforced by Film Report: Screening Madness a 2009 study by the movement Time To Change which found that people with mental health problems in mainstream cinema tend to fall into one of these four categories:

  • Comedy
  • Faking & Indulgent
  • Pity
  • Violence

The latter category is split into ‘Psychosis as Violence’ (Taxi Driver, Misery, Full Metal Jacket) and ‘Psycho Killer Films’ (Psycho, Halloween, Silence of the Lambs). This flies in the face of the fact that people with mental health problems are more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence. As the study says: “Violence is depicted as a symptom of the illness. It isn’t.”

Mental Health Conditions in Film & TV: Portrayals that Dehumanize and Trivialize Characters, published in May 2019 by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, is a more recent report, scrutinising the 100 top movies of 2016 as well as the first episode of the highest rated TV series from the 2016/17 season. Of the various well-illustrated data bites, the summary findings were that: mental health conditions were missing in popular storytelling, characters with mental health conditions face inclusion disparities, tend not to be LGBT and are dehumanised in popular storytelling while suicidal ideation, attempts and death are infrequently shown. Talking about the way forward, the report says, “Audience members who live and thrive with mental health conditions can advocate for authentic and nuanced portrayals that illustrate their own stories. In particular, the importance of effective treatment and support is missing from film and TV.”

This chimes with Fletcher’s perspective. “What is also neglected in typical portrayals is the realisation that a person and their madness are profoundly shaped and modified by the people around them. They are not in a vacuum and are deeply affected by the degree to which they are accepted and respected – or rejected and dismissed as is often the case.”

The ‘Solution’ section of the Time To Change study states that: “People who love films, love talking about them, and films that explore characters with mental health problems with integrity and imagination will help promote understanding and reduce stigma,”  With this in mind, it’s wise and beneficial for cinemas screening films that depict mental illness to seek expert partners to help frame the issues in a constructive way.

Industry partners

There are too many specialist charities, venues, festivals and film clubs working on both a national and grassroots levels to mention. The following can hopefully act as a portal to the wonderful slipstream of organised creatives advocating for better mental illness treatment, representation and understanding.

Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival celebrates the artistic achievements of people with mental health issues, led by Mental Health Foundation a 70-year-old charity focused on prevention and driven by the vision of “a world with good mental health for all”.

Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts Festival highlights mental health by showcasing arts events across Northern Ireland and was pioneering when founded in 2013. Mental Health Movie Monthly, based in Aberdeen, aims to show one movie every month to be used as a platform for a facilitated discussion around mental health issues, while Cambridge Mental Health Club operates a similar service across the Cambridge region.

In London, Mental Fight Club is a sanctuary space based in The Dragon Cafe that, pre-pandemic, opened its doors every Monday for people to enjoy a menu of creative activities followed by an evening event and discussion. Now it operates in an online iteration.

Toki Allison of Inclusive Cinema, “a UK-wide project to support exhibitors in welcoming everyone to participate in cinema, by countering cultural, systemic or physical barriers”, has put together an epic list of additional resources that covers potential partner organisations, key dates and tools for education.

As far as the big charities go, Mental Health UK and Film + TV Charity are existing partners on the release of Eternal Beauty, while Professor Fletcher speaks highly of the activities of Rethink Mental Illness, SANE and MIND.

Impact Areas

Focus Areas