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Mental Health In Media: What Hollywood Gets Right And Wrong

On Wednesday evening, Columbia Science Review hosted a panel discussion about Media and the Mind, promising “a scientific perspective on Hollywood portrayals of mental health.” This Bwogger followed the series of seven printer paper arrows that led her through the labyrinth of Schermerhorn to cover the event.

As I walked into Schermerhorn 614, I was greeted by Chips Ahoy, Oreos, orange juice, and a crowd of twenty-five or so murmuring undergrads. The classroom settled, and freshman moderator Jason Wang introduced the event and its two panelists. Dr. David Hittson is a psychologist with Columbia Health after having completed his post-doctoral fellowship at Counseling and Psychological Services. Prior to Columbia, he graduated from NYU’s counseling psychology program and trained with the New York Harbor Veteran’s Administration Hospital. Dr. Kathleen Taylor earned her doctorate in Psychology and Neuroscience from Princeton University and soon after began teaching and doing schizophrenia research at Barnard. She is also a psychologist at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy.

Jason began by noting that depictions of mental illness seem to be an increasing trend in modern media. He explained that the panel would be set up as a series of video clips from popular films followed by discussion.

After a moment of fumbling difficulty with the lights, we watched a scene from Iron Man 3; anxiety, PTSD, and medication are all referenced in a short, tense conversation between Tony Stark and a young boy. Jason explained that moments like this can often be overlooked in a big action blockbuster when characters are often off fighting aliens, but the opposite can happen too. Mental illness can be overdramatized. In many cases, depictions of mental illness in media can be stigmatizing, implying that people with disorders must have violent tendencies, which isn’t true.

We watched a scene from Split, a thriller wherein the main character has Dissociative Identity Disorder, meaning he switches rapidly between many different identities—in this case, 23. One of his identities is a mysterious and horrific character called The Beast. Dr. Taylor made a point to note how controversial the actual disorder is. Many therapists have never seen cases of Dissociative Identity Disorder, and the cases that exist were handled by very small groups of researchers. Of course, none of those cases were as dramatic as the case depicted in Split.

Dr. Hittson chimed in, noting that it’s important to understand that Split’s writer has no experience with actual treatment or psychology. He also brought up the point that individuals with mental illnesses may more often be victims than perpetrators of violence.

The next clips were of the 1950’s drama The Three Faces of Eve and of the real person who inspired the film. Eve, a woman diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, had her story grossly overdramatized in the popular film. Dr. Hittson talked about how media can influence individuals, explaining that after the film came out, people began self-diagnosing themselves when they noted even the smallest of similar symptoms. “There’s an interplay,” he explained. Media can help us better understand ourselves, but this becomes problematic when mental illnesses are exaggerated and depicted inaccurately.

Dr. Taylor also discussed the problem with Eve’s case. Because her psychiatrist prompted her for different behaviors in his study (“Can I talk to the other Eve now?”), it has been determined that the real-life Eve’s case actually holds no hard, scientific evidence for Dissociative Identity Disorder. Because of her history, Eve was perhaps sensitive to social reinforcement of her environment. Dr. Taylor explained that we all have different behaviors dependent on our environments. Do we act the same way at parties as in an important lecture? Probably not.

One attendee asked how psychologists keep from leaning toward certain diagnoses and accidentally influencing or misperceiving their patients’ behaviors. Dr. Taylor, who specializes in Borderline Personality Disorder Treatment, said that therapists with specialization have to stay as objective as possible. Dr. Hittson said that his work includes lots of consultation with colleagues in related fields.

Our next clip was from Silver Linings Playbook. Jason asked the panelists about the accuracy of Bradley Cooper’s depiction of bipolar disorder. Dr. Taylor thought the film did a “really good job, within Hollywood boundaries.” She said Cooper’s character’s manic episodes were reasonable portrayals; they can be just as or even more dramatic in real life. Dr. Hittson agreed, and also noted that the television series Homeland also has an “excellent portrayal of bipolar disorder.”

The event was just beginning to run overtime when we watched our last clips of A Beautiful Mind. Famous mathematician John Nash, based off a real person, has schizophrenia and is plagued with vivid hallucinations. Dr. Hittson noted that visual hallucinations are really rare and auditory ones are much more common, but the intensity of Nash’s hallucinations in the film made for a nice drama. Dr. Taylor talked about what is called the positive and negative elements of schizophrenia. The positive would be a symptom like hallucinating, whereas the negative would be a common symptom like one’s flattening of emotional experiences. Hollywood chooses not to include the latter.

Jason opened the discussion up for audience questions, but as the panel had already gone fifteen minutes past its planned conclusion, audience members began quietly filtering out of the room. Although impressed by the event, I left wishing there was more time built in for audience questions and perhaps less time spent on especially long movie clips and some dragged-out transitions. The event promised “scientific perspectives on Hollywood portrayals of mental health,” and that’s what it delivered, but I would have loved to have learned even more about the implications that this rising trend in mental illness depiction in media has for viewers, rather than what specific films got right and wrong. Regardless of my minor qualms, I left the event feeling knowledgeable enough to watch popular films about mental health with a newly-trained critical eye.

Photo via pixabay

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