Checking into the Bates Motel: How Movies Get Mental Illness Wrong

We see Leigh enter the bathroom and shower without a care in the world as the motel’s warm water rains down on her. The screen pans out so we see the door open behind the shower curtain. Through the mist and opaque curtain, we see a shadow emerge behind Leigh, growing in size as it comes closer. All we hear is the water raining down and draining through the pipes until suddenly, the curtains are drawn back, the music gets deafeningly loud. We see Leigh turn around only just in time to reveal a shadowed figure with its arm raised, holding a knife before it repeatedly comes down, resulting in terrified screams. All we’re left with is again the sound of water sinking into the pipes.

When we hear “psycho,” we automatically pair the word to someone who is unstable or “crazy,” more often than not in a menacing way. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho evokes fear in all of us – we’re afraid to meet the wrong person when we walk down that dark alley, scared we’ll get someone unhinged as our Uber driver, or, God forbid, check into a hotel where the owner is a little too close with his mother. Unfortunately, the media portrays mental illnesses in an unhealthy and violent way; schizophrenia’s association with Psycho is no exception. These negative images have planted themselves into our subconscious, as we are unable to disassociate the term “psycho” with “mental health patient,” more notably, associating violence with patients with schizophrenia (Byrne 1998).

Unfortunately, this seems to be the case for much of the daily entertainment we witness on television screens. Depictions of schizophrenia are not only stereotypical, but also create a caricature for those living with schizophrenia. These misrepresentations are due to the lack of awareness of schizophrenia in terms of its symptoms, cause, and treatment amongst the general public, including producers of media and viewers (Hyler 1988). Furthermore, the inaccurate portrayal of schizophrenia is not only damaging to patients, but also pervades society by creating “typical” tropes of those with schizophrenia. For example, in a study analyzing English-language movies with at least one lead with schizophrenia, the majority of characters were Caucasian males who exhibited violent, and almost homicidal, behavior (Owen 2012). Alongside the perpetual negative portrayal of schizophrenia is the lack of treatment options on television. Only a few movies actually depicted any means of treatment, which were more commonly in the form of psychotropic drugs. Instead, characters were either forced into institutions or committed suicide (Owen 2012). This gives off the impression that there are only bleak endings for those living with schizophrenia.

This negative portrayal of treatment options in film may contribute to feelings of despair within patients with schizophrenia because films are failing to offer more positive outcomes for those with mental illnesses. From the lack of hope or recovery in the media, specifically in movies, patients living with schizophrenia (and other mental illnesses) may start to relate to these images and believe that these negative outcomes will happen to them, as well. In addition to how patients react, moviegoers also have negative reactions to negative portrayals of schizophrenia. In fact, people who receive their knowledge of mental illnesses from the media tend to be more hostile and intolerant towards those with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, thereby ostracizing those with mental illnesses (Beachum 2010).

However, not all hope is lost. Filmmakers are beginning to see the error in their ways and are showing mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, in a more realistic and positive light. In 2001, the award-winning moving A Beautiful Mind showed various symptoms of schizophrenia, not only violent delusions and behaviors as Psycho and previous movies had done. Russell Crowe’s portrayal of renowned mathematician John Nash showed another side of schizophrenia: a more realistic one. Nash was an intelligent young man who was starting a family – something almost everyone could relate to. Finally, we see the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia develop in Nash’s life, but only after we are given his character development; in other words, his mental illness didn’t define him. We also see how Nash is angry with his antipsychotic medication, something many patients with schizophrenia deal with, as they feel they are losing autonomy over their bodies. At the end of the movie, Nash is seen teaching again at Princeton and winning the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, with his family and “schizophrenic symptoms” side by side (the movie ends with him walking out with his family and the characters in his imagination standing beside them). The movie gave families and patients with schizophrenia hope for recovery (Rosenstock 2003).

Film then, when used correctly, can be a tool for education surrounding schizophrenia for the larger masses. In fact, it was shown that knowledge surrounding schizophrenia improved when college students viewed informational videos versus lectures based around schizophrenia (Owen 2007). If this is the case, we should incorporate film and video about schizophrenia and other mental illnesses into our educational system, especially in places like New York, where it is now required to incorporate mental health education into the school curriculum. By mandating the incorporation of mental health into student education, stereotypes and misinformation can hopefully be eliminated, or at least dispelled, within our communities. We know how to handle physical cases of illness – if we see someone sneeze, we hand them a tissue; if we see someone look faint, we carefully escort them to the nurse’s office. Now we can apply this same empathetic attitude in identifying how to react when we see unexpected emotional reactions and how to lend a hand to those living with mental illnesses, instead of just turning a blind eye.


Beachum, L. (2010). The psychopathology of cinema: how mental illness and psychotherapy are portrayed in film. Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

Byrne, P. (1998). Fall and rise of the movie ‘psycho-killer’. Psychiatric Bulletin22(3), 174-176. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.

Hyler, S. E. (1988). DSM-III at the cinema: Madness in the movies. Comprehensive psychiatry29(2), 195-206. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.

Owen, P. (2007). Dispelling myths about schizophrenia using film. Journal of Applied Social Psychology37(1), 60-75. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.

Owen, P. R. (2012). Portrayals of schizophrenia by entertainment media: a content analysis of contemporary movies. Psychiatric Services63(7), 655-659. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.

Rosenstock, J. (2003). Beyond a beautiful mind: film choices for teaching schizophrenia. Academic Psychiatry27(2), 117-122. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.

Down Syndrome

Representation of Down Syndrome in the Media

On February 7th, Gerber announced that their new “spokesbaby” will be Lucas Warren. Lucas will be Gerber’s first spokesbaby to possess down syndrome in the brand’s 91-year history. Bill Partyka, chief executive and president of Gerber, said, “Every year, we choose the baby who best exemplifies Gerber’s long-standing heritage of recognizing that every baby is a Gerber baby,” (Klein, 2018). Representation of down syndrome is essential as it provides an opportunity for the public to gain more insight into the disorder. Not only that, but it also allows people with down syndrome to be seen as individuals rather than a group or stereotype.

Those with down syndrome have often been narrowly viewed as compassionate, helpless, and oblivious. BBC Three recently did a segment titled “Things People With Down Syndrome Are Tired of Hearing,” which covers the various stereotypes associated with down syndrome. This includes the beliefs such that adults with down syndrome act like children, people with down syndrome can’t live independently, and people with down syndrome can’t hold down jobs. The lives of those with the illness have changed in many ways as a result of medical and social advances. This change incorporates the hiring of special education teachers and new treatments that alleviate the physical obstacles that come along with down syndrome. Journalist, David Perry speaks against the two-dimensional view of down syndrome. When strangers or even relatives learn that Perry’s son has down syndrome, they often say things like “‘Downs kids’ are God’s angels sent down to Earth” (Perry, 2012). While Perry agrees that people with down syndrome can be amicable and cordial, he knows that his child is no angel; he’s just like any other kid. He asserts, “Most parents who have spent time changing diapers, dealing with tantrums or trying to get a sleepy child, with or without Down syndrome, getting him/her ready for the school bus in time know that ‘angel’ doesn’t always cut it” (Perry, 2012). In the past few years, there have been shifts in the representation of down syndrome in the media. The television series Life Goes On was the first major series to have the main character played by someone who possesses down syndrome. The show’s central character, Corky, is an 18-year-old teenager in high school. He undergoes heartbreak, difficulties studying, and social pressures like any other student (Gee, 2012). Another portrayal of the illness includes the musical-comedy Glee. The show possessed a major supporting character who had down syndrome and went against many stereotypes. Not only was she independent, but she pursued a relationship, and also possessed a fierce personality.  

The way that down syndrome is represented in the media shapes how we view the people who possess it. Lucas’s mother says, “We know Gerber chose him [Lucas] because of his cuteness, but it also is spreading awareness of acceptance of people with disabilities of all kinds. No matter if we have a disability or not, we’re all just humans” (Klein, 2018). Although people like Lucas are impacted by Down syndrome, it is important to think of them as individuals over their syndrome. While the portrayal and representation of people with down syndrome are expanding and changing, there are still a number of stereotypes and misconceptions being perpetuated about the syndrome.


Gee, C., & Everbach, T. E. (2012, December). Down syndrome and self-esteem: the media’s portrayal of self-esteem in characters who have Down syndrome. University of Northern Texas.

Klein, A. (2018, February 08). Lucas was just named 2018 Gerber baby. He has Down syndrome.

Perry, D. M. (2012, November 17). Don’t label people with Down syndrome. Retrieved March 07, 2018, from


Celebrities and Media to Spark “Stigma Revolution”

What is the one major commonality shared between every mental illness that exists? Lack of awareness. The awareness does not have to be in regards to the symptoms, causes, or treatment, but just a general understanding of the strong negative consequences these crippling disorders have on strugglers. This lack also often leads to stigmas being created, followed, and believed by both the person suffering and the people creating these stigmas. The common question is, how do we increase awareness and eliminate stigmas?

One disorder often accompanied by a lack of awareness is addiction. Many addicts struggle to find help because they fear the judgment that results from stigma. This stigma stems from the way people talk about addiction. What many perceive as a battle of willpower and control is truly a battle between neurobiological forces. Addiction does not just stem from conscious choices made to take drugs but results from an involuntary combination of genetics and environmental factors (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2014). With this stigma supporting ambiguous and commonly confused beliefs such as this running rampant, addicts are unlikely to get the help they need and deserve to live a happy, healthy life.

The effect the media has on the public is obvious, as do celebrities and Hollywood; this leads most parents to believe that media, celebrities, and Hollywood in general fuel addiction. This is a difficult claim to refute because it is clear that celebrities have a strong impact on their fans, young and old, and are notoriously known for their addictions. For this reason, we need more celebrities and more media organizations to come forward and share stories of recovery and hope. Celebrities such as Steve Aoki, Travis Barker, Macklemore, Dan Smith, and Anthony Anderson have spoken up about how addiction has affected their life or the life of a loved one. Others like Demi Lovato, Theoren Fleury, Amber Valletta and Pete Doherty have addressed addiction publicly and directly in hopes of helping others and breaking the stigma. Media such as the show Intervention, celebrity interviews, news outlets and blogs tell stories of addiction through fiction and nonfiction, while accurately demonstrating the consequences of addiction, no stigmas included. The power that celebrities and media hold over the public is immense. There’s no doubt that addiction is a serious, triggering and touchy subject when it is openly discussed. However, celebrities and media have the power to spread awareness about addiction, inspire hope and recovery and potentially spark a “stigma revolution.”

Help and recovery may look different to everyone, and it is not my place to say what people need nor to say that celebrities speaking up will cure addiction. Unfortunately, addiction is likely to be seen in generations to come. We can only hope that increased discussion and accurate media portrayals of addiction and recovery will inspire addicts to get help and meet their full potential. Through new insights into addiction and recovery, fears of judgment are being diminished, allowing addicts to seek help without unnecessary social fears.


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