Stop the Stigma: Mental Health Depictions in the Movies

scary hand
photo Scary Movie 5 – in theaters next spring! by M Rasoulov from flickrcreativecommons

Fall is my favorite time of year; the leaves begin to fall, the weather gets a little cooler, and the aroma of spiced coffees and teas fills the air. And you can’t forget about all of the scary suspense-filled movies that start to take over your television screen. In light of mental health awareness week, as well as practicing being a more critical consumer of media, I think it’s worth exploring the stigma surrounding mental illness that is often carried out in some of our favorite movies.

Oftentimes in suspense or horror movies the villain is seen as an antagonist, a violent, evil genius with mental illness that is rampant beyond the help of doctors. In contrast, protagonists are seldom portrayed as having some sort of mental illness. A great example of this is demonstrated in the movie American Psycho. The main character, Patrick Bateman, is glamorously portrayed as a wealthy, standoffish killer suspected to have antisocial personality disorder and possibly dissociative identity disorder, while all of the other characters are depicted as “normal” friends and coworkers. This discrepancy between Bateman’s character and the other characters within the movie highlights the “them vs. us” mentality that is often associated with persons with mental illnesses.

In order to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, education and awareness must be raised. When something is unknown it is easy to be fearful of it and project that fear onto the unknown entity. While movies that depict characters living with mental illness may be entertaining to watch, it is important to understand how this can have unintended effects on those who deal with mental illness on a daily basis.

With this in mind, here some things to keep in mind to reduce stigma:

  • Treat someone as a person, not a label

Treat people as individuals rather than the labels that society places on everyone. Continuing to utilize labels further repeats the cycle of stigma.

  • Use “person first” language

Instead of saying “that bipolar guy in class”, when referring to someone, use wording such as “the guy in class who has bipolar disorder”. People are not their diagnoses. They just happen to have a diagnosis.

  • Avoid using harmful words

Words such as “crazy” and “psycho” are not only hurtful, but also disrespectful.

  • Be sure to check out Stigma Free Carolina for more information about how you can get involved in reducing stigma on campus!

Find more information on how to reduce stigma here:

Mental Illness Awareness Week

Logo from National Alliance for Mental Illness:
Logo from National Alliance for Mental Illness:

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), around one in four adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness each year – that’s about 61.5 million people. Furthermore, one in 17 adults is living with a serious mental illness like major depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. Given these statistics, it’s likely that mental illness affects the majority of us in some way. Yet, it’s a topic that is often misrepresented or ignored altogether in the media and within our society as a whole.

To work towards changing this, Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) was created in 1990 – Each year, the first full week of October (this year, October 5-11) is designated as MIAW. So that’s happening next week! You might be wondering: what exactly is Mental Illness Awareness Week, and how can I get involved? Keep reading for answers to these questions.

NAMI explains that during Mental Illness Awareness Week, “we fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for equal care.” As NAMI’s definition states, fighting the stigma surrounding mental illness is one of the main objectives of MIAW. According to a study done among students at UNC, 11.3% of Carolina students surveyed said they agreed with the following statement: I would think less of someone who has received mental health treatment. Furthermore, 19% of students surveyed agreed with this statement: I feel that receiving mental health treatment is a sign of personal failure.

As these statistics show, stigma surrounding mental illness in our community is a real issue. For more information on stigma and how to combat it, check out Stigma Free Carolina – a group on campus working to fight stigma and raise awareness about mental health issues in the UNC community.

"People in the summertime," by Gonzalo G. Useta, Flickr Creative Commons
“People in the summertime,” by Gonzalo G. Useta, Flickr Creative Commons

There are a bunch of great events happening at UNC for Mental Illness Awareness Week – if you’re interested in learning more, get involved with some of these opportunities! Here’s a schedule of events for MIAW (and beyond):

  • Mental Health awareness event in the Pit – sponsored by Stigma Free Carolina
    • October 3, 2014 from 12:00-2:00pm
    • Location: the Pit
    • Trivia questions and prizes!
  • Rethink Psychiatric Illness training – sponsored by Stigma Free Carolina
    • October 4, 2014 from 2:00-6:00pm
    • Location: Student Union, room 2423
    • Register here
  • Redefining Mental Health panel discussion sponsored by Stigma Free Carolina
    • October 6, 2014 from 5:30-7:00pm
    • Location: Carolina Inn
    • Register here
  • Interactive Theater Carolina performance on mental health issues
    • October 7, 2014 from 6:00-7:30pm
    • Location: Student Union, room 3203
    • Register here
  • Mental Health 101 training
    • October 9, 2014 from 6:00-8:00pm
    • Location: Student Union, room 3408
    • Refreshments served!
    • Register here
  • Rethink Psychiatric Illness training
    • October 25, 2014 from 12:00-4:00pm
    • November 8, 2014 from 2:00-6:00pm
    • Register here

For more information on mental health services on campus, including individual and group counseling, check out UNC’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).