Is portrayal of mental illness in the arts improving?

Mental ill health is irrefutably becoming something we feel more comfortable addressing and having open conversations about. In many ways, we are making progress; trigger warnings are becoming commonplace, men are being encouraged to speak up, and slowly, the stigma is dissolving. But despite this rise in our supposed ability to talk about our mental health, it seems that representations of it in mainstream media remain as harmful as ever. In the last year alone, we have seen shows and films such as 13 Reasons Why, To The Bone, and Split base their mentally ill characters on stereotypes and caricatures.

In To The Bone, we follow a young, conventionally attractive, white woman with anorexia nervosa who is placed in an inpatient house. Her identity is most readily associated with eating disorders, and many have pointed out the obvious problem with the continued narrative of beauty and eating disorders. Its representation of being an inpatient has also been called inaccurate, and the content of the film seems to be more triggering than it is informative.

Split is harmful at its core. It is a horror film about a man with dissociative identity disorder who kidnaps and plots the murder of three women. Such demonising of people with serious mental illnesses is incredibly damaging; when we see other people suffering with mental ill health, we take them further away from accessing help.

Films relying on universal appeal or views on Netflix for profit and success have an agenda unconducive to informative and nuanced explorations of serious issues. To garner attention and intrigue, producers conform to manifestations of mental illness which refuse to challenge our preconceptions. They stick to the narratives we are most familiar and comfortable with, no matter how far they fall from representing a whole story.

It is easier for audiences to swallow the idea that those with serious illnesses are different to the rest of us, than to acknowledge that their illness is something they experience and struggle with, as opposed to something that they are.

It seems that, when finding nuanced and sensitive portrayals of mental health, we must look further than the media outlets most readily available to us.

This year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Mental Health Foundation presented its first Mental Health Award, for the show which most successfully represented the issue of mental health or illness. The award is the first of its kind at the Fringe, and it marks an important step in the conversations that theatre and art can provoke. The foundation explained that they wanted the award to “encourage artists of all kinds to continue to make this kind of work”, emphasising the influence that theatre can have over public opinion.

The award was presented to Mental by Kane Power and his mother Kim. It is a play performed by Power, which explores his mothers’ experience of living with bipolar disorder, and was applauded by the Mental Health Foundation for its “empathy” and ‘‘inventiveness.”

Such awards are crucial, as they encourage artists to create representations with accuracy and empathy, rather than sensationalism and shock factor. It would be a huge step forward to see similar awards presented in TV and film.
Shows such as those shortlisted for the Mental Health Award are changing the game in terms of representation, and subsequently public opinion. We should not underestimate the positive influence that mainstream media could have if it takes note.

Image: Brad Fergie

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