Letter: A Grease-Dry Wheel Greatly Needing to Shriek – Not Just Squeak

Why isn't there more outrage about Hollywood's often misleading portrayal of people with mental illness?

When it comes to the social reality of (at least for the foreseeable future) the prevalence of mental illness I’m often left frustrated by the contradictory proclamations and conduct coming from one of the seven pillars of our supposedly enlightened culture—the media, or more specifically that of entertainment and news.

First they’ll state the obvious, that society must open up its collective minds and common dialogue when it comes to far more progressively addressing the real challenge of more fruitfully treating and preventing such illness. After all, its social ramifications exist all around us; indeed, it’s suffered by people of whom we are aware and familiar, and/or even more so to whom so many of us are related to some degree or another.

Perhaps needless to say, the above-mentioned most commonly occurs when a greatly endeared celebrity passes away or dies an untimely death. This fact was in particular exemplified immediately following the many predictable platitudinous sound bites and mini-memorial commentaries from the late actor/comedian Robin Williams’ contemporaries as well as in many newspaper letters and editorials following his tragic suicide.

However, that’s when the doublespeak so boldly occurred. The vast majority of the mainstream media, if not in its virtual entirety, distinctly appeared to willfully overlook Williams’ full mental health diagnosis, if not current condition—i.e. bipolar disorder (a.k.a. manic depression).

With the exception of three newspapers (Alberni Valley Times, South China Morning Post and The New York Daily News), a few amongst a large number to which I had submitted a detailed letter on the matter, none of them replied let alone ran the letter—their conspicuous silence on this matter was to me deafening. And, of course, to claim ignorance of Williams’ complete illness, consisting of two opposite extreme sides to the same coin, is plainly implausible since it could be immediately found upon a Google search using the obviously relevant names and terminology.

Expressed simply, I’ve grown rather weary of such effectively-go-nowhere yet nonetheless bold suggestions (however sincerely felt) to tackle the stigma of, to put it one way, losing one’s control over his or her brain chemistry. Upon initially being declared that such destructive illness must be regarded with far more effective effort, it’s usually just a matter of some months before that initial clamour for action gradually settles down to near obscurity, at least until the next mental-health-related tragic news story.

With all due respect to the well-intentioned though still too few vocal mental health advocates out there, as a whole it seems to me to be a fairly common bandwagon-effect exercise, one that ends up neglecting to practice what had been preached just a few weeks before, often when such-and-such great performer in significant mental-health turmoil (long-time-diagnosed or perhaps not at all reported to a doctor) sadly took his or her own life. For those who question the veracity of my assertion, they only need recall how quickly the  concern for the mentally ill wore down following Williams’ suicide.

Furthermore, contrary to the stigma of serious mental illness that can still be found emanating from the entertainment industry, there are other social issues far more responsibly portrayed by Hollywood, such as the 1991blockbuster movie Silence of the Lambs. In it, actress Jodie Foster’s character, FBI Agent Clarice Starling, with Anthony Hopkins’ character, Hannibal Lecter, in full agreement with her seem to make an effort to inform the viewing audience that, in general, transsexuals do not become serial killers.

Their clarification was all well and good while also especially timely when considering the exceedingly creepy and nightmarish actions of the film’s bad-guy, multi-murderer, wannabe-transvestite and human-skin harvester ‘Buffalo Bill’. There was significant potential for dangerous stereotyping in that box-office hit, which I feel was averted.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be accurately said about the 2008 box-office-hit movie The Dark Knight. In a blatant example of stereotyping people living with schizophrenia, Hollywood’s production and release of the film took advantage of the still-politically-acceptable environment of stigmatizing the debilitating mental illness. Specifically, in one memorable Dark Knight scene the glorified Batman character irresponsibly recklessly erroneously grumbles to the district attorney character Harvey Dent that the sinisterly-sneering clearly-conscience-lacking murderer he has handcuffed to a wheeled stretcher is “a paranoid schizophrenic—exactly the kind of mind that the Joker attracts.” As one fairly close to someone surviving the terrible illness on a day-to-day basis, this astonishingly thoughtless claim blew me away when I initially viewed the movie, and it still leaves me angry when I re-watch the picture (one I admittedly enjoy watching, though almost entirely due to the late actor Heath Ledger’s excellent post-humus Academy Award winning role as the Joker).

Considering that even as we’ve entered the third millennium a four-star-rated Hollywood hit movie can still be readily found flagrantly demonizing mentally ill characters, how much longer will it take for allegedly enlightened society to explicitly discourage via blunt condemnation such obviously unjust blanket branding by the entertainment industry of undesirable killer characters? How much more of such presumptuous yet incorrect extremely negative stereotyping will people living with schizophrenia have to endure due to superhero-role scripts brainlessly stating that such ill people are naturally predisposed to psychopathic violence? For a more accurate perspective on the illness, Schizophrenia.com states, “People with schizophrenia are far more likely to harm themselves than be violent toward the public. Violence is not a symptom of schizophrenia.”

It seems obvious to me that, unless and until it’s successfully very vocally countered, this mental-health stigma condition will likely continue to be abused by the entertainment industry for some time yet to come. Which leaves one to ask where was the public protest, the large and loud outcry? I’ve yet to hear of it from any one person in the local mental health community. If one felt like delving into the ideological/political realm there are some fitting double-standard examples one could easily give, such as, ‘Had it been an equally unjust recklessly punishing comment about the such-and-such community in this day and age, you’d know there’d be public relations hell to pay.’ So why is it, at the very least with the astonishing brainless Batman slur, still open season when it comes to stereotypical Hollywood portrayal of people with such a serious mental illness? Why can The Dark Knight’s screenwriters and producers so brazenly get away with such an apparent cruelly careless act? Is there such an absence of any notable or even at all noticeable squeak to the mental health community wheel?

What’s clear and consistent to me in all of this is that, unlike with the large portion of the population dealing with depression or clinical depression requiring treatment, the one percent of the population suffering the most debilitating of all mental illness, people living with schizophrenia, must contend with what I call the societal ‘out of sight, out of mind’ effect—i.e. if it can’t be seen nor readily relatable to, on a subconscious level it in effect doesn’t really exist for the healthy masses.■

Frank Sterle Jr

White Rock