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Mental health in film – touching or insensitive?

Mental illness has long been a popular trope in the cinema, its use often falls somewhere between heartfelt and mocking.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has once again found himself in trouble with the police.

In order to escape prison duties, he pleads insanity and is sent to a mental institution, where he settles in well. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) is a domineering woman who gains power through the disabilities of the other inmates.

McMurphy and the other inmates join together in rebellion against the oppressive nurse.

On the one hand, this film is uplifting in that it shows strength and courage, but on the other hand, the fact that Chief kills the lobotomised McMurphy could suggest a releasing from a prison in the mind – something that could be insensitive to some audiences.


Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

After being housed in a mental institution, Pat (Bradley Cooper) moves back to his parents’ house in an attempt to get his career and marriage back on track.

However, things become all the more challenging when he meets equally troubled Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence).

I think the fact that Lawrence won an Academy Award for her role speaks volumes. But in general, the audience come to love the quirks of these two characters and the film has an uplifting feel – a huge achievement for a rom-com that centres on bipolar disorder and depression.


Black Swan (2010)

Committed dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) desperately wants the lead in Swan Lake, requiring her to play both the white and black swan.

But Lily (Mila Kunis) seems tough competition for the part. Nina becomes overwhelmed by the pressure from her mother, and herself, to get the part and begins to lose her mind.

The film deals with schizophrenia, as Nina begins to lose touch with reality. She conjures up a range of situations, detached from the real world.

However, this film also touches upon OCD, eating disorders and self-harm. The film is critically acclaimed and Portman’s performance won an Academy Award – but in terms of mental illness, it is quite rare that all these illnesses would occur at once.

Again a good watch, but perhaps an exaggeration from the reality of living with a mental illness.


Psycho (1960)

This Hitchcock classic touches upon multiple personality disorder.

A secretary steals money from a client and runs away to a remote motel run by Norman Bates, a young man controlled by his mother, Norma.

Throughout the narrative, it becomes clear that Bates has multiple personality disorder, through behaving normally as himself during the daily running of the motel, and then murdering his victims as ‘Norma’ (dressed in his mother’s clothing).

Although this film can make a thrilling watch, it could perhaps be treating sufferers of this mental illness in an insensitive and potentially harmful way.



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