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How Pop Culture Can Inspire Mental Health Recovery

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

In the 20th century, portrayals of mental health weren't exactly nuanced. With rare exceptions, movies used sensationalism to hammer home their depictions of 'madness'.

Remember Glenn Close's wide-eyed frenzy in Fatal Attraction? Jack Nicholson's menacing snarl from The Shining?

In these movies, sane was sane, and crazy was crazy. Stories focused on catastrophic mental breakdowns in all their caricaturistic splendor, while words like 'wacko', 'nuthouse', and 'loony bin' were thrown around casually. Pop culture from the 21st century is full of instances of how not to portray mental health. The majority of situations are two-dimensional sketches of something that should be given far more thought and care. Since there is more awareness of mental health issues today and a resultant increase in the debate about it, the depictions have also become more carefully detailed. Let's us look at when pop culture got it right and when it clearly got it wrong!

Back to the beginning

The further you go back in time, the depictions of mental illnesses become less detailed. In literature, the first depiction was by Charles Dickens in his novel Great Expectations. He created a character who was written as a spinster and insisted on wearing her wedding dress at all times. Why? The reason was that she was 'crazy'. When it comes to movies, if the character was depressed, it was a general belief that they must have a good reason for it. For example, think about James Stewart from the film It's a Wonderful Life. He lost his work, his means of providing for his family and was prepared to jump from a bridge. It's terrible, but where's the nuance? Where are the characters who suffer from depression on a more relatable everyday level?

The fact that stories frequently favored extremes contributed to the issue. To understand this better, you must watch horror films like 'Psycho' where the psychotic Norman Bates dresses up like his deceased mother. This shows how closely linked ‘madness’ and ‘murder’ were in the popular imagination. Such movies suggested that poor mental health and violence invariably went hand in hand — no examination necessary.

What has changed?

Movies have now began making an effort to show more accurate portrayals of mental illness to balance out the negative portrayals. These portrayals have since gone a long way in destigmatizing mental health. People relate to characters with mental illnesses who they look up to and feel more accepting of their own mental illnesses. For example, in an interview done by two researchers, a 17-year-old girl said that Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted was empowering and helped her be more comfortable with her own bipolar and antisocial disorders. This shows that such portrayals can allow those who are struggling to perceive their conditions from outside of themselves. It can also help people comprehend their actions, the influence they have on themselves and others, the potential causes of their illnesses, and how to get care, especially if they are in denial about their condition.

Certain films can also be educational, challenge stereotypes, and aid in understanding therapy. Movies and TV shows like 'Silver Linings Playbook' and 'Good Will Hunting', have educated viewers about new ways of thinking and asking for help through nuanced depictions of therapy and symptoms of particular conditions. Music has also played a major role in destigmatization. For example, Billie Eilish's song 'Everything I Wanted' addresses the pressure and anxiety that can come with fame, and how seeking help can make a difference.

It is important to spread awareness and shine a light on what mental illness is and how it can be treated. This can and should be done by filmmakers and musicians who have the power to influence young minds by striving to continue showing accurate depictions of mental health in pop culture. What do you think?

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