It is very easy to use mental health concerns as intriguing plot twists or character faults in today’s film, television, and literature the same way it is very easy to kick someone who is already down.
Physical illness is also used to bend a plot arch and blindside viewers, however it isn’t quite the same. When a character is revealed having a physical illness, the audience is sympathetic, it is usually a somber and heartfelt moment. We feel pain with the character.
When a character is revealed as having a mental illness it is usually in a way that shocks the audience, but mostly, it others the character. Take for example the classic film Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock.
If you are unfamiliar with the film, it is about a young man who owns a motel and involuntarily changes between the personality of himself and the personality of his deceased mother, who was controlling and wants to be the only woman in his life. The mother persona murders the women that Norman encounters for this reason.
What we’re seeing in Norman’s character is a very confusing portrayal of a condition referred to as DID; Dissociative Identity Disorder. This may seem like a more fitting name to someone looking in as it appears to others that the individual switches personalities, however the DSM-V refers to it differently as the condition is a dissociative response to complex trauma in formative years.
So, what’s the problem?
Often individuals with DID are portrayed as senseless and psychotic, and mostly as violent. This is just not the case.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID), also known as multiple personality disorder, has been used as a literary plot device for centuries. Less recently in literature, more recently in film. It creates suspense, drama, and violence for the audience. What they do not always know, however, is that the disorder can be portrayed in ways that are somewhat fictitious and not scientifically accurate.
– Madison Verhulst, “Psycho,” “Fight Club,” and “Split:” Dissociative Identity Disorder in Film
Why should you care? It’s not like anyone actually has this kind of disorder, right? Wrong.
International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation states that 1-3% of the population suffers from DID:
As stated in Verhulst’s article, similar tropes are used in films such as SPLIT, the psychological thriller by M. Night Shyamalan.
The use of chronic mental health issues as character flaws and excuses for violence is damaging. It paints suffers of these conditions as villains, when in reality, they are have been victims of terrible trauma. Victims of violence and abuse are often portrayed as being the perpetrators of further abuse, however, the opposite is more common.
Abuse victims and those who suffer from mental health concerns are often the victims of more abuse later in life, or all through their life, particularly if having suffered from complex trauma as children.
What can I do, though? Seems like it’s out of my hands.
Well, reader. Here’s a list!
1. Acknowledge the harm that these tropes perpetuate.
2. Recognize that people who suffer mental illness are just as worthy of your empathy as those suffering physical illness.
3. Spread awareness, but mostly spread compassion.
4. And reader, if you feel so inclined, OPENLY BOYCOTT FILMS THAT DEMONIZE INNOCENT VICTIMS OF ABUSE.
Thanks for tuning in reader, and remember always, you are the change.