From tales as old as time, cinema has captured the public’s attention through thriller, action, and romance packed movies. Famous movies such as Split (2016), Psycho (1960), and Fight Club (1999) have allowed the public to develop a perception of mental illness. These movies share a similarity that the main characters show behaviors typically displayed in dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder.
Film portrayals have led to the creation of stigma and unfavorable opinions about mental illness (Sampson, 2020). One of the strongest abilities cinema holds is being able to influence what and how people think about mental illness. Hollywood loves to dramatize and produce certain portrayals of characters that may bring mental illness to light, but not in the most positive way.
A well-known mental illness portrayed in films is DID. Dissociative identity disorder can be described as an individual having at least two different personality states. The switch between one personality state to another is most often seen as an involuntary escape from reality. The jump from reality to reality tends to stem from a disconnect in thoughts, identity, consciousness, and memory. People are still researching and finding more information about, but the most conclusive trigger to DID is a history of trauma or abuse experienced in the individual’s lifetime.
For most individuals with DID, dissociation can be seen as a coping mechanism that an individual may use to disconnect from a stressful or traumatic experience, or even try to separate those traumatic experiences from normal awareness (Cleveland Clinic, 2016). This leads an individual to disconnect from the present moment and the outside world. This type of defense mechanism comes into play when there is a probable situation where physical or emotional pain can potentially occur. However, there is still a lot that we don’t know about DID yet in terms of other plausible triggers to the disorder.
So what does this mean for the film industry? The media’s portrayal of mental illness tends to be gravely inaccurate. Most often, films who have characters portraying the symptoms of a mental illness are aggressive and violent. It is not uncommon to find these characters being posed as criminals or living in a homeless area. From negative depictions of DID and stereotypes, it is apparent that most people will have a convoluted idea of what mental illness is. These misinformed films are one of the primary reasons there has been great stigma against those who actually suffer and live with a mental illness or condition.
Not only has the film industry negatively framed the information about mental illness, but it has also led to the confusion and mix up between other mental disorders. Particularly, in the film Fight Club, when the main character who displays DID and his alternate identity called Tyler had stated what he felt was almost a hallucination. Dissociative identity disorder and schizophrenia are often seen together collectively, despite both disorders being very different from each other. Because of such media portrayals, the public eye becomes misled to what actually is the truth behind these disorders.
One of the biggest issues the media tends to display more often than not is the dialogue and language used against characters who are portraying a mental illness. Vulgar and offensive terms such as “unstable,” “crazy,” “nutjob,” “psycho,” and “freak” are just a few words out of many that are common in films. The use of offensive language in film addressing mental health can influence the public to think it is normal or okay to call someone these terms without seeing the impact and long lasting effect they have on an individual. It is never okay to say any of these words to any individual, especially those who suffer from mental illness. Offensive language should not be normalized in films portraying mental health, and filmmakers should consider the sensitivities of the audience.
How can you change the conception of mental health in the film industry? One probable solution to this problem is for the public audience to be better informed about mental health. It is not enough for the public to see a two hour film and to have the correct perception of a mental disorder like DID, which has been used so many times in cinema. We should start normalizing open conversations about mental health so the public could have a more positive and informative view.
Dissociative Disorders | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2020). National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Dissociative-Disorders
Multiple Personality Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment. (2016). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9792-dissociative-identity-disorder-multiple-personality-disorder
Sampson, V. (2020). The Portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder in Films. The Portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder in Films, 11(2), 79–88. https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/communications/journal/wp-content/uploads/sites/153/2020/12/08-Sampson_ejfinal.pdf