“False portrayal is worse than no portrayal” – Sara Metwalli
There is no denial of the role that the media plays in shaping the mindsets of the masses, particularly about sensitive issues. What you consume daily through your tv screen, the internet, or any other medium of transmission can determine, and even shift, your values, beliefs, and opinions about certain topics to a great extent. It is important to note that no doubt, media depictions of sensitive topics are highly significant in spreading awareness, but in a society like ours where the dialogue about mental health and relevant issues has already been stigmatized to a huge degree, making shows about the very topic is like walking on eggshells. One wrong or misinformed ideal extended can lead to massive disasters, which is something that, unfortunately, is very common on our screens.
The portrayal of people dealing with mental health conditions, their treatments, mental health facilities and professionals, and other pertinent matters has always embraced our screens in one set stereotypical manner. Per say, anyone with a disorder of any kind is a crazy maniac with no social skills or sense of identity; mental health facilities are dark, gloomy places perfused with the sounds of screams and torture, and mental health professionals are eccentric people who have lost their own sense of sanity because of the constant presence of troubled individuals in their life. This is the basic idea that is propagated, either directly or subtly, through an alarming number of shows and movies. For all those who have never studied psychology in any way, this is where they get their information from, connect the dots and the dire problem becomes very evident.
Another concern with media representation of mental health conditions is that it borders on one of two extremes: criminalization or romanticization. According to Nation, “TV Dramas in Pakistan tend to show antagonists suffering from mental illnesses as karma, a result of their sins or punishment by God for all their evil deeds. Furthermore, in a number of the psycho killer/thriller Hollywood movies, characters suffering from schizophrenia are presented as ‘hallucinating lunatics’ or ‘homicidal maniacs’”. (Khan 2018) This stands true for other conditions apart from schizophrenia as well such as other psychotic or personality disorders. Their symptoms might often be exaggerated in shows as a means to create a sensation, hype, and drama and entice viewers. What the real-time effects of this are, producers and writers do not stop to think.
The number of problems in this regard is exorbitant and it will take ages to touch upon all of them, but another one that I feel obliged to discuss is the very specific representation of mental health conditions as visibly weird and violent traits. The focus is on two aspects here: visible and violent. This leads to two direct impacts, one, it stigmatizes the people who suffer as aggressive individuals, and two, it makes people believe that all mental health conditions are visible and hence, people should look visibly depressed, visibly ‘ill’, people should visibly suffer, and for all those who do not have explicitly visible cues of their condition, it takes away from their pain and makes people doubt their feelings with questioning statements along the lines of “You don’t ‘look’ depressed, you don’t ‘look’ schizophrenic” and so on. There needs to be a common understanding that people are not going to have their conditions tattooed on their foreheads, and their conditions aren’t always going to be very visual, but they will still be real and require compassion and empathy.
On the other hand, the romanticization of these conditions also causes lot of harm. The idea might have started with good intent: destigmatize mental health conditions and make people believe that everyone with a mental heath condition has other traits too that make them amazing. The underlying motive is great, but the execution, not so much. In an attempt to destigmatize, many just end up showing mental health conditions as ‘cute and quirky’ traits that are fun to have, which takes away from the struggle that people face on a daily basis and at the same time, makes others believe that there can be no severity to these conditions. Shows and movies also often romanticize the presence of other people in the life of someone who deals with these conditions: the idea that a boy comes and ‘saves’ the damsel in distress from monsters that are her depression and anxiety and they both live happily ever after, this could not be farther away from reality. (Metwalli 2020) The notion that mental health conditions are atrocities that people need to be ‘saved’ from does a lot of damage in both directions, it makes people feel something absolutely horrendous has happened to them if they develop a condition and it perpetuates this idea that someone else has the ability to magically make your troubles disappear.
Accuracy is also a major dilemma in these shows, often the portrayal of people with mental health conditions is powerful and tries to raise awareness in the right manner, but it is not accurate as to how the condition or its symptoms actually are. The characterization of mental health conditions should not be that which creates sensations and adds to the show’s ‘edginess’ but rather such that invites the viewer to take a look at the world from the lens of someone who has dealt with these conditions day in day out, that invites the viewer to be empathetic and actually understand what it feels like to be in a position of this sort.
Pakistan hasn’t seen a long list of shows that touch on this particular subject, with most of our content revolving around domestic politics and abuse. In the midst of this, a recent famous show Ishq Zahe Naseeb made a brave attempt at trying to stir up a conversation about mental illnesses. It stars Zahid Ahmed in the lead role as Sameer, a successful businessman with a split personality disorder, how accurate the portrayal is in terms of an actual representation of SPD, is up for debate. It does appear that the producers of the show are genuinely trying to give rise to awareness on the topic, but one might argue that it also seems to go slightly sideways by criminalizing certain aspects of the condition and treating it as Sameer’s ‘mysterious, dark and hidden secret’. Whereas other shows like Ye Dil Mera and Aakhri Station, do a much better job at getting the viewers to understand on a much more personal level what struggle with mental health looks like. (Akbar 2019) Overall, the Pakistani screen is still far behind when it comes to representation and that too accurate.
Then there is Hollywood and with its extensive list of films on the likes of psychology and mental health, there are bound to be occasional slip ups – intentional or not, that is a point of contention. A discussion on the several films and shows in Hollywood that got mental illnesses wrong would be an article on its own, but on a broader level, the impact of Hollywood’s films and shows on this topic has always swayed like a pendulum. One major theme in this genre is the ‘mentally unstable serial killer trope’, blockbuster movies like ‘Psycho’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ grace this particular category, some say that this would be an essential element for awareness yet others would say that these depictions generate the space for people to start thinking that this is how all people with mental illnesses end up. (Dobson 1998)
Another infamous step that the American screen has taken in this direction is shows and movies surrounding topics like depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide, the biggest example being the recent sensation ’13 reasons why’, a show that managed to instigate a lot of controversy for its explicit display of self-harm and suicide. Some said this show brought attention to the fact that our actions might lead to people taking their own lives while others at the same time agonized that this show glamorizes suicide and romanticizes depression. The final verdict? That is up to how you perceive and interpret it, and that is the case with most of these shows and films. But that does not take away from the fact that misinformed representations that are not well thought out, are actually adding to the stigma of mental health.
There are many more aspects that still need to be touched on in this discussion but to wrap it up, it is pertinent to remember that often, the intentions behind such shows are good, creators just want to bring more light to an important conversation, but due to the delicacy of the matter at hand, it is very important that one is aware of every interpretation that could be taken away from their depictions of mental health conditions. Hence, an ethical producer of media content must always bring professionals on board, with specialized knowledge of the topic they are covering so as to make the show or movie as objective as possible and let it not add any further to the stigma that has already branched out to all segments of our society and is polluting people’s minds with major misconceptions about the mental health community and the field of psychology. And as a consumer of media, it is up to each and every one of us to fact check our information and not let the misconceptions perpetuated by the media cloud our perceptions.
Akbar, Hammad. 2019. The Mental Health Crisis: Are Dramas & Films Showing It Right? December 12. https://galaxylollywood.com/2019/12/12/what-pakistani-entertainment-industry-needs-to-get-right-about-mental-health/.
Dobson, Roger. 1998. The bad, sad and crazy movies that mock mental illness. October 10. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/the-bad-sad-and-crazy-movies-that-mock-mental-illness-1177132.html.
Khan, Maha Shafqat. 2018. The Mental Health Series: Media. October 04. https://nation.com.pk/04-Oct-2018/the-mental-health-series-media.
Metwalli, Sara A. 2020. 4 Ways Romanticizing Mental Illness Is Making the Stigma of It Worse. September 10. https://medium.com/invisible-illness/4-ways-romanticizing-mental-illness-is-making-the-stigma-of-it-worse-b0d9af94f5f7.
Rehman, Maliha. 2020. I felt like it was my responsibility to be a part of Ishq Zahe Naseeb, says Sonya Hussyn. February 03. https://images.dawn.com/news/1184571#:~:text=In%20the%20recently%20culminated,%2C%20Sonya%20Hussyn%2C%20applying%20makeup.