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How TV is changing perceptions of mental disorders

Published: Wednesday, April 16 2014 12:45 a.m. MDT

Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist, professor and author, believes filmmakers and TV producers frequently put a "positive spin" on mental illness, which leads to inaccuracy. Durvasula said though she loved "Silver Linings Playbook," it implies people can dance away bipolar disorder. "As Good as It Gets" also sacrifices genuineness in favor of positivity because the main character, who suffers from OCD, rapidly improves after he falls in love and finds a friend.

"Saying a character is mentally ill … becomes a story device to have that person behave badly 'for a reason' and rationalizes their bad behavior in a way, which further stigmatizes mental illness," said Durvasula.

Katz said films and TV shows can also damage people's perspective of mental illness by only showing the most extreme cases. He said "Rain Man" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" are good movies and accurately portrayed how people with mental disorders have been treated, but both movies exaggerated certain aspects of mental illness and treatments for theatrical purposes.

"When you do that with mental illness, you’re creating a stigma that stays with people because people don’t know what (the illness) is," said Katz.

Better portrayals of disorders

However, other recent depictions of mental disorders in the media are more accurate, according to Durvasula. She credits this to larger TV and movie productions having Ph.D.s or M.D.s on hand to contribute their opinions.

She said movies such as "Aviator" (which shows Howard Hughes' struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder or obsessive compulsive personality disorder), "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" portray mental disorders more correctly.

Additionally, West-Olatunji said writers of certain episodes of TV shows including "Castle," "Homeland" and "Elementary" have received awards from the Voice Awards program, which recognizes people and media productions that have helped raise awareness about mental health. For example, in the award-winning "Homeland" episode, an explosion causes Carrie, who suffers from bipolar disorder, to have a major manic episode.

Why mental health education is important

West-Olatunji said mental health awareness is important because many people and programs can help those with disorders.

"For many people there’s a stigma against seeking mental health assistance. A lot of that has been due to the portrayal of mental health professionals in the media that isn’t accurate," she said, adding the American Counseling Association — which is a partner of the Voice Awards — wants to support films and television programs that educate the public about mental illness and substance use disorders.

She said people with mental disorders who seek help can lead "more productive lives and have better relationships."

Lane also believes mental health education, whether through the media or individual voices, is vital. That's why she began to openly discuss her struggles online after her second son was born and she experienced postpartum depression. She said it was initially a "terrifying experience," but it helped her realize she was not alone.

"I had friends and family call me and email me telling me about similar struggles and that they too were fighting depression," said Lane.

"My perception shifted as I realized that it was more common that I had previously thought. Rather than hiding and being ashamed I came to realize that depression, anxiety and mental illness — like any other disease — require treatment, support and a plan of action," she said.

Email: kpolatis@deseretnews.com Twitter: KandraPolatis

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