Movies And The Mental Health Industry
Films Tend To Paint The Mental Health Industry As Terrifying, Traumatizing Or Counter-Productive, But Not All Mental Institutes Are Arkham Asylum!
I have always had a strange attraction towards films set in mental institutions or concerning those with mental diseases. Maybe it is the exploration of the psyche; the fact that everyone is a little bit unhinged and all a mental disorder is, is the amplification of neuroses… Maybe it’s the fact that there is something terrifying about losing control of your senses and being unable to discern between reality and the fiction created by trauma or misplaced hormones… Or, maybe it is because I spent a good portion of my childhood in therapy due to suffering from Uni-Polar Anhedonic Depression.
I have never been ashamed to admit to my history with a mental disorder. Far from it. I take pride in the fact that I took control of my life and sought help; and with that help, as well as the help of my family and friends, I managed to force that sickness into remission and use it to give me perspective, determination and strength. I could not have done that without the help of my family and an amazing GP who saw through the facade of ‘teenage angst’ to something deeper and referred me to a fantastic Psychiatrist. He evaluated my personality and planned my therapy around the way he believed my mind worked. On a whole I am quite a logical person and his recommendation for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy reflected my need to treat my brain like a broken computer. Together we looked at my emotional numbness and broke it down into individual challenges and problems and concocted logical answers; essentially re-wiring my thinking and putting the leads back in the right places. Psychiatry gave me the tools I needed to fix myself.
Since then I have had slips. No one with a mental disorder is ever truly ‘cured’, only ‘in remission’. So, naturally, when stresses reared their ugly head I would dip. Whether it was exams; relationship issues; the severe sickness or death of loved ones; inevitably the sick numbness would return. But thanks to the tools my Doctor gave me, I was able to fight it each and every time. Some times took longer than others; some times all it took was me looking in the mirror and saying “Man the f**k up!” But I could not have made it without these tools.
So, as I sat down last night to watch Grave Encounters, a film melding two of my favourite themes of cinema: horror and insanity, I suddenly felt a huge pang of anger. I thought about the representation of insane asylums in cinema: Shutter Island;Nightmare on Elm Street 3; House on Haunted Hill; Session 9; One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest; Terminator 2… to name but a few. The sad truth is, the mental healthcare industry tends to constantly be painted as terrifying, traumatizing or counter-productive. Asylums are always haunted by wailing, horrifying in-mates; mistreated and violent; the staff are abusive and look down on those they are paid to protect, while male staff sexually oppress their female patients and female nurses are either sexually attacked by patients or abuse those weaker than them with bureaucratic power.
I recently appeared in a music video for the Welsh band Science Bastard in which I played an insane asylum in-mate who was being tortured by a kidnapper. I think now how I added to the stigma I am now so brutally aware exists in cinema, but console myself in the fact that the kidnapper was not a traditional mad scientist or psychiatrist, but a Saw/Hostel style masked antagonist, and whether or not my character was actually an in-mate or some unfortunate woman held captive in a straight jacket, is questionable.
We used a wonderful location for the filming; an actual Mental Institution in South Wales which happened to have an unused floor, yet the rest of the facility was still active. The cast and crew whispered stories of a ‘woman-in-white’ haunting the halls, while we discovered old boxes of medical records labelled with the words ‘Deceased’. The entire shoot had an air of creepiness and urgency. Yet, as I look back to it, we never once encountered an in-mate; the bathroom we used to put on make up and costumes was located in a gorgeous, bright theatre where the patients would gather for entertainment; the staff were happy enough for us to wander around unaided or chaperoned (even with prosthetic make-up and blood, which I thought might startle those of a nervous disposition, but the staff merely laughed) and the venue itself was beautiful with vast amounts of greenery, gardens, trees and no high walls with barbed wire as films would lead you to expect.
Many films, be it horror or drama, basically brainwash the public into considering mental patients as dangerous and ‘below human’. They are shed in the same cinematic light as ghosts, ghouls, monsters and murderers. Mentally ill is not the same as ‘Criminally Insane’. Not all mental institutes are Arkham Asylum! Or haunted by the ghosts of those lobotomized or experimented upon by their doctors. Yes, the psychiatric industry is still in its infancy and consequently there are still many horror stories of recent history where there have been cases of the exploitation of subjects, horrific experimentation and treating mental patients like animals. But we no longer live in that time.
We live in a time now where heroes such as Stephen Fry speak out openly about their issues and feelings and allow people to see that those with mental problems are people to be admired, supported and even followed on Twitter (especially followed on Twitter!) We live in a society where commercials are shown teaching ‘normal’ people that they should still speak to those with mental health issues as people, not talk down to them or be afraid to put their foot in it. I hope we live in a society where I can write a post like this and it won’t cause people to poke me with a proverbial stick because they think I’m dangerous and harmful just because I have a history of mental health issues.
So this has made me think. While I still hold a morbid fascination with horror and thriller films set in Mental Institutions as I do believe they play on an essential form of psychological horror, questioning reality vs. fiction and how we deal with trauma; are they essentially counter-acting the work of the wonderful advert shown above? Are we encouraging audiences to distance themselves from the Mental Health Industry as ‘The Bad Guys’ and patients as lab-rat victims or horrifying demons? What films do we have that show the Mental Health Care Service and instiutionalized patients in a positive or more well-rounded light?
The sad fact is, I could only think of a few. I hope you can help me build my list and recommend some more. While I will most likely not distance myself from thrillers and horrors set in asylums or starring those with mental disorders, as I do find they play on my personal fears of the loss of my own mental capacities or overwhelming psychoses (therefore playing to the exact genre that they are aiming at – horror) it would be nice to see the Film Industry begin to loosen its grip on the Mental Health Industry as a community of fear and horror. Many actors take on roles of mentally diseased people as a way of testing their range, consequently we have a whole host of uplifting or inspiring stories about people with disorders (As Good As It Gets, A Beautiful Mind, Rain Man, etc…) but very few about the places and people who can help them. So, without further ado, here are my top films set in Insane Asylums that actually say something positive or paint it in a more realistic and human light. [WARNING: DESCRIPTIONS CONTAIN SPOILERS]
5. K-PAX, 2001
Director: Iain Softley
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges
‘prot’ [unapitalized on purpose, please don’t shout at me] (Kevin Spacey) believes himself to be an extraterrestrial from ‘K-PAX’, a planet 1000 light-years away in the Lyra Constellation. On being committed to the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan he meets psychiatrist Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges) who evaluates him to be delusional. However, in Powell’s quest to break prot’s delusions, he discovers that prot has a strange level of knowledge and level headed-ness which makes him begin to question his insanity. prot also forges strong bonds with the other patients and promises to take one of them to his home planet when he leaves. Powell soon discovers prot’s true identity and that he in fact attempted to commit suicide after his wife and daughter were murdered. However, the finale of the film sees prot reduced to a Catatonic state (presumably leaving his body) and another patient missing.
While the story of this film may seem ridiculous as it plays around with the existence of extraterrestrial life, causing the viewer to question the validity of prot’s claims at the end of the film; it is its exploration of the differences between delusion and reality and how hope, positivity and happiness can oftentimes be more important than what is considered to be sanity. Muchlike I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay, it is about finding a balance between the encouragement of an obvious delusion and dissuading altogether. Is it not better to connect with a patient on a human level by feigning minor belief in their world than forcing them to break it up and fracture their reality? While not an amazing film, K-PAX manages to make us see those with delusional mental health issues as people plagued by imagination which, although it may be damaging to them psychologically and socially, can often allow those around them to reflect on their own lives and views of their reality.
4. I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Okay, 2006
Director: Chan-Wook Park
Starring: Su-Jeong Lim, Rain
Young-Goon (Su-Jeong Lim), a woman who believes herself to be a cyborg cuts her wrist in an attempt to insert a power cable. After this interpreted suicide attempt, she is sent to a mental institution where she refuses to eat (on the grounds that she does not need sustenance) and ‘makes friends’ with the local machines and clocks. Here she meet Il-Sun (Rain), a young male patient who suffers from anti-social behavior, kleptomania and schizophrenia and the story progresses through their friendship and his attempts to help cure her.
We learn that Young-Goon’s grandmother suffered similar delusions and believed she was a mouse. When the Institute came to take her away, Young-Goon swore revenge on the ‘men in white’ and convinces herself that she has been placed in the asylum as a ‘combat cyborg’ to enact this revenge upon them. While she imagines violent acts upon them in her cyborg form, she never truly acts upon them and instead begins to deteriorate causing them to force-feed her and put her through electro-shock therapy in order to survive. This is one of the few ‘positive’ depictions of shock therapy. While the process is still a horrifying one to an audience, as a woman who believes herself to be a cyborg she finds herself ‘recharged’. While she in fact carries on physically deteriorating, her mind is refreshed giving her the fight to continue.
As with many of the positive films regarding mental institutions, it is not the facility itself but the in-mates who help this girl through her trauma. Her friendship with Il-Sun and his conforming to her delusions in order to help her survive are sweet and understanding. He does not so much attempt to cure her but find a balance in her imagination which will allow her to survive.
3. Girl, Interrupted, 1999
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie
Eighteen year-old Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) admits herself to Claymoore Hospital after taking an overdose of aspirin in 1967. She is soon diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and many cultural and historical stereotypes and prejudices come to light about the 1960’s mental health system; especially prudish prejudices surrounding pre-marital sex, free thinking and creativity. During her stay she befriends many of the patients with varying mental and social disorders, including Lisa Rowe (Angelina Jolie), a sociopath. Although their friendship begins and ends in a volatile way, including their escape from the institute, it is through seeing the world as Lisa sees it that Susanna is finally able to accept her therapy and help herself to vent her emotions and overcome her disease.
While many of the experiences in the institute are traumatic for Susanna, it is the experiences outside the confines of the hospital that are the worst. Here, where the patients are not surrounded by the care they find so claustrophobic, their neuroses are most heightened and damaging. The nurses, although strict, are also caring in their own old fashioned ways and even in a time where psychiatry was still experimental and people with mental disorders were looked down upon, they manage to go outside to watch a film or have an ice-cream. Of course, these minor positive presentations are secondary to the fact that once Susanna accepts that she has a problem and work towards solving it with the help of her doctor, she not only feels better as a person but is also free to leave and pursue her life.
2. Awakenings, 1990
Director: Penny Marshall
Starring: Robin Williams, Robert De Niro
Based on Oliver Sacks 1973 novel Awakenings, this film tells the true story of the British neurologist portrayed as an American Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams). Although this is not strictly based in a mental institute in the same way as the others are (the disease the character suffer from is found to be caused by an extraneous variable; an epidemic rendering them all catatonic) it still shows how people can become distanced from those with Catatonia as they do not respond or communicate in ways acceptable to most people.
Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) and the other patients in catatonic ‘comas’ are awakened by the then new drug L-Dopa and soon begin to regain their lives, meeting family they have not seen in years; socializing and falling in love (some for the first time) and sharing their thoughts, likes and dislikes with their caregivers. When the drug tragically begins to wear off and each of the patients inevitably fall back into their Catatonic states, it is the reactions of the nurses, doctors and families which are the most positive. They have finally been able to see these people, who were empty husks to them previously, as real people. They are able to dress them the way they would like, put on their favourite music and television and read them their favourite books.
Whilst this is a tragic story, it is also an uplifting one as it shows how health professionals can be taught by those they care for and that people with incapacitating mental issues which are so often considered ‘a burden’ or de-humanising’ (such as Catatonic Schizophrenia or Alzheimers) are still the people they once were underneath and should be treated as such. It also sheds an interesting light on experimentation and its positive effects; while so many films focus on the ‘lab-rat’ as a victim, Leonard encourages his development. And although he speaks of regretting the doctor’s decision to wake him, we see him reconnect with his mother and experience life for what could have been the only time.
1. It’s Kind of a Funny Story, 2010
Director: Anna Boden
Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Emma Roberts, Zach Galifianakis
Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist) decides to admit himself to hospital after contemplating suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. While he is admitted he meets Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) and strikes up a friendship with him as well as a female patient Noelle (Emma Roberts). While he is institutionalized, Craig discovers what he wants to do with his life and begins to express his feelings through creativity and art which is encouraged by those around him. He also manages to gain a more full understanding of the teenage problems he is facing such as unrequited love, jealousy and parental pressures and put them in perspective when faced with people like Bobby (who has attempted suicide six times) and Noelle (who is in for self-mutilation).
From the perspective of some one who was diagnosed in her teens, this is an interesting film for me. As many teenagers are fobbed off by those around them when they ‘come out’ as having problems, simply because adults see it as a ‘teenage phase’. While this may sometimes be the case, many teenagers are afraid to tell their elders that they think they have a problem due to this being their possible response. So, while this film does put Craig’s mental issues in perspective, it also shows us that even if we consider a teenager to be going through ‘a phase’, they still might need the help they are asking for, even if it is to guide them towards the path they would like to take. No claim of mental illness should go un-noticed, as it it only the person claiming to have problems that can see into their own mind and who are we to question that.
Anastasia is a Freelance Illustrator, Writer and Actress based in Wales, UK.
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