Mental Disorders in Entertainment

Now that the immediate furore over Thirteen Reasons Why seems to be dying down, it occurs to me that mental disorders and illnesses do crop up frequently in books and film. Although Thirteen Reasons Why ultimately fails to largely address depression and the mental condition behind suicide, there are countless other stories which deal—directly or indirectly—with the mental disorders that so many people suffer every day.

There are a great number of films that deal with these subjects, from Rain Man (autism) to Mr. Jones (bipolar disorder), many of which are based of novels that equally delved into these areas of human psyche. Many of these books and movies are critically acclaimed, often for the performances of actors, or for even attempting to portray a mental illness of some kind in the first place.

And many of these accolades are deserved, because the stories themselves are well thought out, written and directed. At the same time, a great number of them get things wrong, from minor details to entire disorders. Sometimes these errors are the fault of poor research, but sometimes, it seems, they are made deliberately for the sake of a more engaging, dramatic storyline.

For example, the recent film Split, dealing with Dissociative Identity Disorder, rather predictably portrays several of the main character’s personalities as violent or psychopathic. And as engaging as James McAvoy’s performance was, I couldn’t help thinking that it didn’t really align with my (admittedly limited) experience with DID, and the people who suffer from it. None of the people I knew were overtly violent, though anger was often a factor, and none of them were outright psychopathic.

So I start to wonder, how far does entertainment need to go in getting these disorders right? And what right do the authors and scriptwriters have to portray sometimes devastating mental illnesses for the sake of entertainment? Because at the end of the say, works of fiction are just that: entertainment.

In the case of a self-help book, or a documentary, there are certain qualifications that are expected of the author to be able to speak with authority about their chosen subject. Not so in the world of fiction; I could write about, say, agoraphobia if I wanted to, with minimal research and no experience.

When I started writing a story about a girl suffering from severe depression, I wanted to make sure that I portrayed it as realistically as possible. Although suicide is dealt with as a theme, it doesn’t serve as the focal point of the novel. Instead, it revolves around the symptoms and onset of teenage depression, and the effect they have on the sufferer, an those around them. And I admit, I have a message and a goal in mind: to educate people about depression who might not otherwise understand. But is entertainment the right format for such a message?

I suppose it depends on how you view such entertainment. Not all stories are equal, and while some entertainment is light, thrilling or just plain fun, some is designed to make us think. Sometimes you come across a story that, as fictional as it is, leaves an indelible impression that might—just might—change your perception of the world in a tiny way. And while I would never say that mental illness should be portrayed as a mockery, dealing with it sensitively and accurately can go a long way toward bringing such things into the light, rather than spending their time languishing in the shadows. After all, more people are going to watch a movie about depression if there is a compelling entertainment factor to it as well—even if it’s just to have a good cry.

What do you think? Should mental illnesses be portrayed in popular media, and what duty do the authors have to portray them accurately?

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