No film about us without us

There can be something really therapeutic about going to the cinema and seeing characters like you go through hardships and come out the other side. It’s kind of like a reminder that you can make it out the other side of whatever you’re going through. And after seeing Winona Ryder battle aliens or Lindsey Lohan navigate high school, it can kind of make you feel like you’re going to come out of whatever you’re going through alright as well. But what if your problems aren’t like these? What if the biggest problem you’re facing is mental illness? Well fortunately for you my friend, there are films out there about people like us. There are films out there about people living with mental illnesses, each with varying degrees of accuracy on their portrayal of the lives of people with mental illnesses. And here I have helpfully evaluated four of them.

Shutter Island (2010)

This film falls into the genre of ‘psychological thriller’, which is fitting because it’s literally a thriller (as in horror genre) about having a mental illness, or psychological disorder. We’re positioned to see the events unfold from Teddy’s perspective, right up until Teddy’s own psychosis becomes clear, where the audience becomes alienated from him and the characters he previously fought against become more relatable. So yeah, not super great representation, especially because it’s a real struggle for people living with mental illnesses to ‘come out’ to their friends because they’re worried they will be treated differently. Thanks Shutter Island for subtly but undeniably cementing those attitudes in your viewers. This is especially important because people with mental illnesses need to feel comfortable enough to ask for help in order to have happier, healthier lives. Another maddening aspect of this film is that it’s written so as to instil fear into the viewer that they too could suffer a mental illness as Teddy does. It’s your standard ‘oh my god, what if I’m also crazy?!’ that we can generally expect from any film within the genre of ‘psychological thriller’. But let me tell you right now, having a mental illness is not the worst thing that can happen to you.

One out of five stars

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

So this film has less emphasis on the actual work part of recovering or living with a mental illness. The main character Charlie goes through the plot passively living with his poor mental health without ever really opening up to ask for help, which leads to his hospitalisation. However, his close friends are aware of his struggles, and Charlie’s mental health deteriorates and improves as his relationships with his friends do. As a result we see a version of reality where friends are a defining factor in the positivity of our mental health. However that often isn’t the actual reality for people living with mental illnesses. Yeah, our lives can get better and worse based on the people in it, but the idea that our mental health is based on having great friends just isn’t reflective of the lived experience of many people with mental illnesses. I guess my biggest problem with this film though was that it romanticised mental illness. Major positive developments in Charlie’s life are spurred by a bout of negative mental health and that’s not how the real world works. The defining moment of acceptance into Charlie’s new friendship circle is based on his friends finding out about the death of his best friend. However, this film does help to alleviate stigma of people living with mental illnesses and people who are hospitalised in psychiatric facilities, because Charlies does live through it and come out the other side a happier, healthier person.

Three out of five stars

Gone Girl (2014)

So this film doesn’t specifically deal with mental illness because there’s no diagnosis, no time in psychiatric facilities and no psych doctors present throughout the film. But I’m going to address it anyway because of all the media attention it’s received in terms of trying to diagnose the leading lady, Amy. So we actually live in a culture where to access necessary government services you have to have a diagnosis. And so as a result, there are far more people falsely diagnosed with a disability because they need the service but don’t actually have any diagnosable condition. For example, to use public psychiatric facilities in many cases in Victoria you have to have a diagnosis or be diagnosed during your stay, even though people engage in self-destructive behaviours without having a mental illness. Additionally, it is not uncommon for children who have abnormal development to be deliberately falsely diagnosed so they can access services they need that are only available to children with disabilities. This is perpetuated by a mainstream media which insists on diagnosing characters or people when they are different or quirky. Trying to diagnose a film character when her mental health isn’t even discussed in the film itself is only going to contribute to these problems in society, so thanks for that other reviewers of Gone Girl.

Zero out of five stars

Girl, Interuppted (1999)

If you want to talk about the concept of ‘recovery’, then this is a film for you. James Mangold brings to the screen the tale of Susanna Keyson (Winona Ryder), a young woman institutionalised in a psychiatric facility in the 60’s. Cute 60’s costumes, less cute scenery. Told from the perspective of Susanna herself, Mangold encourages the viewer to understand and empathise with the struggles Susanna faces regarding her less than ideal mental health, and what leads her to choose to recover. It sometimes can feel that ‘recovery’ is now only a word used to describe people fighting specific kinds of mental illnesses. However, the film reminds us that no matter the nature of our poor mental health, we all have the power to choose to recover, thus empowering the viewer to see recovery as a viable and necessary option for themselves and the people they care about. Additionally, Suzanna asks for help on multiple occasions. This representation contributes to the construction of a society where asking for help is okay, and where people with mental illnesses actually feel able and empowered to ask for help.

Four out of five stars