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COLUMN: Toxic stigmatization of mental illness in media

Critics and horror buffs are buzzing in anticipation for the new psychological horror film “Split.”

The movie features a villain suffering from dissociative identity disorder with 23 different personalities. In short the message rings loud and clear: 
Mentally ill people are scary.

On the other side, a movie we all know and love, “Fight Club”, also features a main character suffering from dissociative identity disorder.

This movie differs from “Split” because it presents its protagonist as a cool guy, hardened by his illness in an artistic and romantic light: Mental illnesses are cool. To be fair, these messages probably were not the intention of the creators of either film, and my critique on their portrayals are in no means critiques of the films.

The characters’ mental illnesses are used as plot devices in their own rights, which I believe is important. Mental illnesses are prevalent, important and honestly interesting, but even though it was not intentional, these messages behind using mental illness as plot ring loud and clear.

Mental illnesses are stigmatized in both negative and romantic ways, which are both harmful.

Obviously, this doesn’t just include dissociative identity disorder. It happens with all kinds of different mental illnesses, finding their ways into many media tropes.

How many books, movies and shows have you seen with the romantic, brooding protagonist suffering from depression? How many horror movies feature the crazy victim dealing with psychosis?

The media is sending two very clear and very harmful messages.

Either mental illnesses are cool and everyone should want one or they are horrible and everyone who has them is scary and dangerous. Both of these ideas are equally harmful.

According to statistics from the World Health Organization, one in four individuals in the world suffer from mental health illnesses.

The general population should view mental illnesses as exactly what they are, conditions that one in four people on Earth have and deal with every single day.

They should not be romanticized or demonized because they can have horrible effects on people’s lives, but this says nothing about them as a person. They are suffering from something they cannot control. This stigmatization in the media comes down to something very simple.

There needs to be more public discussion about mental illness. People suffering from mental illnesses are taught to keep it to themselves or perhaps only discuss it with medical professionals.

Due to the general silence and taboo regarding mental illness many people are never even diagnosed because they don’t know to seek help in the first place.

Something that affects a quarter of the world’s population should surely be something we can discuss honestly and openly. I would like to see a character in media presented as someone with mental illness and simply living their life with no 
demonization or romanticization.

It doesn’t have to be the focal point of the character because someone’s illness does not define them.

I disagree with many others that critique the use of mental illness as plot device outright.

I think it can be very interesting and insightful if done well.

For accurate portrayals of those suffering we need to take the leap and start conversations about the mental illnesses facing so many of us, so let’s talk about it. Silence is the worst option for everyone involved.

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