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Beyond stereotypes: a challenge for Pop Culture

Mainstream cinema hasn't always been nuanced when it comes to represent mental health. From Psycho to Atypical, how stigmas have been turned into brave storytelling.

Finding the right way to speak about mental health can be a challenge, and it's a challenge popular culture hasn't always proven itself equal to. When it's bothered to focus on mental health issues at all, it's often been to exploit them for their dramatic potential in ways that perpetuate harmful stereotypes without looking at the conditions themselves or at the treatments which might effectively tackle them, or else it's used them to provide amusing background colour. The issue is especially problematic given the evidence that mass media is one of the public’s primary sources of information about conditions like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Mainstream cinema has a long history of linking mental health with violence. Understanding of mental health issues was limited when Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released in 1960, and the film helped engender the belief that mental illness was inevitably associated with extreme behaviours. And although in many ways radical in its approach, 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (based on a bestselling 1962 novel of the same name) also negatively influenced perceptions for years, with one study concluding that college students who had seen the film subsequently took a more negative view of those with mental illness. Twelve years later, Glenn Close's character in Fatal Attraction continued the trend of depicting those struggling with mental health issues as dangerous psychopaths.

By the turn of the century, though, a shift seemed to be underway, with two films released in 1999 highlighting a growing schism. Despite being based on a memoir, psychiatric ward-set Girl, Interrupted made seemingly little effort to break down melodramatic stereotypes, but Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides took a subtler, more multifaceted approach to the depiction of mental illness, and this trend for more thoughtful, less simplistic takes continued through movies like the 2001 biopic of mathematician John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, 2012's Silver Linings Playbook, 2014's The Skeleton Twins and Steven Soderbergh's 2018 psychological thriller Unsane.

In recent years, shows like Jessica Jones, Never Have I Ever, Atypical and Pure are among the sophisticated, relatable portrayals of the challenges mental health can present which have become increasingly frequent on TV, helping to underline that mental illness needn't define a person's entire existence and to normalise mental health treatment.

Another positive development has been the growing willingness of celebrities to open up about their personal struggles with mental health, with celebrities from The Rock, Kesha and rapper Kendrick Lamar to Selena Gomez and Jon Hamm speaking about their own experiences. Singer Demi Lovato has been particularly vocal, using her platform to boost awareness and executive-producing a documentary on bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety, while Lady Gaga, a long-time advocate for mental health issues, has spoken out about being a survivor of sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder and the stigma surrounding mental health medication.

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