4 Ways Movies and TV Shows Negatively Portray Mental Health Treatment

For a long time, there has been minimal education on mental health and the treatment of mental health. Not only was this apparent in the treatment systems in the United States but it's also been evident in the media.  

4 Ways Movies and TV Shows Negatively Portray Mental Health Treatment

Throughout the years, film and television have tried to show the experiences of those struggling with mental health issues. It's good to have that representation, but the ways that the topic has been portrayed in the media have often been inaccurate and outright harmful.

As the world becomes more educated, people need to recognize the pieces of media that are inappropriately representing mental health. Misrepresentations give people the wrong impression of what it’s like to experience mental illness, and how those who have been diagnosed should be treated.

1. The “Big Trauma”

Experiencing a big traumatic event in your life may certainly increase the risk of mental illness. However, it’s not the only reason for someone’s internal battles. Yet, that seems to be one of the most common stories told. Films like “American Sniper” and ”Perks of Being a Wallflower” depict characters who had traumatic experiences that influenced their mental health. Traumatic experiences are valid, but they are not the only piece of the puzzle. These examples give viewers the impression that only those who’ve lived similar experiences need mental health support. 

Several variables can affect mental health. Most important to note, DNA can have a big influence on your odds of developing a mental illness. Mental illness can be inherited from relatives, and may even depend on the environment you’re raised in. Even those who haven't experienced life-changing events are deserving of the right care, whether it be through a mental health rehab program or therapy.

2. Violent Behaviors

Mental illness may influence violent behaviors, however, the media has made it seem more common than it is in reality. The film “Brothers” tells the story of a war veteran, who turns suddenly violent when he returns home. His behaviors are not an accurate representation of those who experience PTSD. Those diagnosed with the disorder will often experience anger, but it’s rare for that anger to turn into a violent outburst as portrayed in the film.

Even real-life stories shown in the news media have been harmful. There have been several mass shooters in the last decade who have used mental illness as their crutch for committing violence. There is nuance in those situations and what really causes the person to enact violence. Blaming it all on mental illness is simplifying the issue, as it probably has more to do with the lack of a supportive community and access to treatment. Playing into the violent stereotype is harmful to those struggling who just need proper care. 

3. Therapist/Client Relationships 

Not only are movies and TV inaccurately representing mental health, but they're also misrepresenting the treatment of mental health issues. There are a lot of unethical therapist-client relationships that are shown in some of the most popular TV and films. “The Sopranos,” “The Departed,” and “Silver Lining’s Playbook” are just a few popular pieces that have had an unrealistic portrayal of a therapist-client relationship.

Therapists in these shows introduce a bias into their practice and even show their clients physical affection. In “Silver Lining’s Playbook,” the therapist tests the lead, Pat, by playing a triggering song without warning in a public space. This type of interaction is unethical, as Pat did not consent to the practice. 

It’s important to recognize that therapists are supposed to have an objective point of view and provide a safe place for the client. Their job is to be a listener and offer advice when people are going through a hard time. They are not supposed to pressure their clients or make their decisions. Negative examples of treatment can steer people away from therapy, even if it’s not accurate. The exaggerations can do more harm than good when it comes to understanding what therapy looks like. 

4. Mental Illness as a “Quirk”

The media has a way of simplifying the struggles of mental illness in order to make it more digestible for the audience. “Silver Lining’s Playbook” is again a good example of this misrepresentation. The two lead characters are quirky and have questionable social behaviors due to their mental illness. Instead of showing their true struggle, the film takes a comedic approach and almost romanticizes what the characters are experiencing. Mental illness isn’t quirky or funny, and those struggling deserve to be taken seriously. 

Another fact about mental illness that is important to note, is that it’s not always obvious through social behaviors. The characters in film and TV are often exaggerated to a point where it’s obvious to the audience they have issues. There’s a lot more that goes into why people act certain ways, and it’s not always easy to spot someone’s struggle. People are seldom open with their experiences due to stigma, and a lot of symptoms are internal. Someone who’s quirky isn’t always mentally ill, and they shouldn’t be judged or diagnosed without an honest conversation. 

Recognize the Stereotypes

The stories most people watch are often fictional, so it’s ok if these forms of entertainment don’t get every aspect of mental health right. It’s more important for you as a viewer to distinguish honest portrayals from dramatizations. Be critical of the media you consume, and keep an open mind if you ever interact with someone who is openly struggling with mental illness. 

Don’t base your opinions on popular entertainment. Instead, get your perspective from cited publications online or from the library. Even booking a session with a therapist will help you better understand mental illness and how it relates to you. Your education on the topic will help you better support a community with those affected by mental illness.