An honest blog sharing the ups and downs of my personal mental health journey

Monday, 20 July 2020

If You Watch Too Much TV, Your Eyes Will Go Square

I seem to have gained this fairly irritating ability to preempt when a storyline in TV and film is going to result in someone having a mental illness, which ultimately is only used to add 'entertainment' and 'shock value' to the plot.  

This has been an issue from the beginning of time, but I guess I've started noticing it more because it's now more relevant to me - almost everything I'm referring to in this post is the way people with bipolar are portrayed in particular. 

In this day and age, in a time when we're (slowly) making positive strides to understand and accept mental illness, why is it apparently okay to write a character into a storyline that is portrayed as being literally fucking insane?

It's seemingly pretty obvious that the vast majority of people writing these characters into stories have zero understanding, experience or exposure to anyone going through a struggle whatsoever, most of all themselves.

So, who better to create a character battling with their mental health for all to see? Someone who has absolutely shit all clue what it's like to have it, that's who.

I've noticed a lot of things are written almost like someone has gone to Google, bashed their head against the keyboard, gone to page 180 of the search, copy and pasted something into their script like, "I think we've bloody nailed it here". No, you've not even used blu tack on this one pal.

I want to try and make a careful comparison to how a lot of other long term illnesses are portrayed differently on screen, but it's difficult to make one when I've not been through those experiences myself. I don't want to use a specific example, but let's just say a lot of other stories with characters suffering from long term or serious illness are usually shown as impassioned, treated sensitively and the audience feels empathy and sympathy for the character.

I really don't think this is the case with depiction of mental health whatsoever, at least not with anything I've watched involving it.

In particular, if a character in a storyline has bipolar, they're portrayed as frantic, irrational, unstable, unsafe, villainous, homewrecking, a sociopath, and almost every time there's a lot of emphasis on them stopping taking their medication - which further adds emphasis that the character is ignorant, stupid and out of control. Because apparently by not taking their medication, they're purposely choosing to go 'off the rails'. 

Ultimately, it's made to seem it's their fault they're acting that way. 

As soon as someone is perceived as not being arsed or not taking their medication just for (apparently) the hell of it, there's absolutely no empathy or sympathy for that character because they've now been made to look selfish and irresponsible by doing it.

Well, that's really just not how it works. 

 people with bipolar (and let's face it, a lot of people on medication regardless of what you're taking it for) stop taking their medication because it's either not suitable for their symptoms, they haven't been prescribed it correctly or because they are in a better/elated mood they feel like they don't need to take it. Now, this last one can be part and parcel of the illness itself - when you're feeling in a manic or hypomanic episode and you feel good, you often don't compute that you're feeling that way because of the illness. 

So, linking that to being prescribed something that's not suitable, you're going to think it's okay to stop taking it because you feel good. Get it? Maybe not...but it's worth trying to explain it anyway.

If written into a storyline was: 'Sandra was devastated a few days ago because she burnt her toast and was late leaving for work. She went outside for a little breather to calm down and fell over a gnome. Whilst facing the ground she found a 4 leaf clover and 2 magpies flew by. She then drove to work and there was no traffic whatsoever, so she actually got there right on time. Sandra also got a promotion that day. On the way home she saved a stranded puppy and lived happily ever after. Nice one, Sandra'. 

I'd imagine that probably leaves the audience feeling quite happy and rooting for Sandra.

Here's another storyline: 'Sandra, who has bipolar, one day flipped her lid because she burnt her toast due to the fact she stopped taking her medication that day and she didn't realise the toaster was on full whack. But actually the silly bitch wasn't even using the toaster after all, she was off her nut and thought the oven was actually the toaster because she's delusional, harharhar. She wasn't late for work because she can't hold down a job because she's useless. She then went completely berzerk, smashed a couple of Derek's garden gnomes out back, then shaved off all her hair circa Britney 2007. She then continued to have a breakdown and went on a killing spree, then she killed herself. Sandra is crazy. Everyone stay away from Sandra'.

The second storyline would be far more shocking (on second thoughts I should probably start writing movies myself...) but as we should be able to see by now, Sandra's second portrayal is exaggerated, factually incorrect, ridiculously stupid and actually just really fucking offensive. 

Basically, it would be really nice for people to stop depicting mental illness as weak, stupid, scary, selfish and intimidating for thousands, nae millions, of viewers to watch. 

The only thing this incorrect portrayal is doing is further encouraging people to completely and utterly misunderstand mental illness and make the stigma 10x worse because supposedly it's entertaining. 

Why not start writing realistic, positive and educational mental health storylines instead. If you're a good enough script writer you should be able to make that impactful and positive anyway, right? 

I watched a film a while ago and within 2 whole minutes you discover a character in the storyline has bipolar and kills herself AND her Mum at the same time. Within 2 minutes of the film. Then, to add insult to injury, it's basically irrelevant to the rest of the film and I believe not actually mentioned again. Not only is that pretty upsetting and offensive, it's also just lazy and pathetic 
story writing. I did actually watch the whole film was the weirdest thing I've ever seen so lay off that one. 

Since then I've seen 3 or 4 films that end up with a character either killing someone, killing themself, or both.

I read a book once about a man struggling with his mental health who has just got out of hospital. The book itself does not mention what diagnosis he has or the specifics of what happened while in hospital. It's actually a really subtly humorous and uplifting book and doesn't necessarily use his mental health negatively at all. 

The film adaptation the first 5 minutes the audience are told he has bipolar. It's not even in the original story. Why?!

This also happens in true life documentaries too, however they are usually slightly more tactile with how it's portrayed. They do like to leave the person killing themselves towards the end though for a good shocker, because that always seems to be what happens. 

To turn this on it's head slightly, another example from a particular true crime documentary I watched, is someone with bipolar had been arrested for murder and given a shorter sentence or was not convicted correctly at all (I can't remember which, it was shit).

I'm not going to go into this much because it's extremely controversial whether this should or shouldn't happen, but what I will say is by doing this they're fighting to excuse or justify a man killing another man...just because he has bipolar. Maybe his mental state did have some sort of effect on why he did what he did, but the evidence shows that he actually just really hated this guy and that's obviously more likely to be the reason he killed him (not like that's an excuse, of course).

As far as I'm aware I've never killed someone and believe it or not I don't plan on doing it either. 

You'll notice I haven't named the movies and documentaries above because I don't want to promote something that makes mental illness even more stigmatised and unacceptable than it already is.

I urge anyone that actually wants a realistic portrayal of mental illness to listen to mental health podcasts such as: Happy Place, The Mental Illness Happy Hour, WTF With Marc Maron, The Hilarious World of Depression, Unlocking Us with Brene Brown.

Books that are written by real people that are going through/have been through real life struggles: An Unquiet Mind, First We Make the Beast Beautiful, Reasons to Stay Alive, The Psychopath Test, We're All Mad Here, The Recovery Letters, Notes On a Nervous Planet etc, etc, etc.

But, most importantly, actually have a bloody conversation with a person who is suffering (there's literally no excuse to not be doing this anyway).


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