Pop culture raises mental illness awareness


Graphic by Alexandria Moore.

Since the 2010s, movies and television shows have featured more characters with mental illness. While some of these portrayals are still exaggerated or inaccurate, many more programs are doing a better job of normalizing and raising awareness on the topic.

For the longest while, media stigmatized the idea of mental illness. Characters with any mental illness were portrayed as cartoonish, psychotic or a gifted genius, depending on the context of the story.

There are many examples one could use, but a prominent example is “Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece. After it is revealed Norman Bates has been dressing up as and impersonating his long-deceased mother, the doctors in the film justify his behavior by saying he is schizophrenic.

Another example is 1988’s “Rain Man,” which does the polar opposite of what “Psycho” did by having a protagonist who is extremely gifted in spite of his mental condition. Dustin Hoffman’s character is autistic, but this deficiency also reveals he is a hidden genius. 

Even today, inaccurate portrayals of mental illness still exist.

2018’s “The Predator” is a science-fiction/action film featuring two characters with autism and Tourette’s syndrome respectively. The one with autism is like the Rain Man, a secret genius, but the titular alien of the movie wants to capture and harvest the kid’s autism to better his race. No, this is not a joke.

The one with Tourette’s doesn’t fare much better, as his spastic behavior is used as a source of comedy. Although it seems like mental illness has been normalized for the worse, the truth is that strides have been made to be respectful in representing mental illness.

One surprising example is season four of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.” The star of the animated show is a washed-up actor, and, in this season, the series delves into the effects his childhood abuse and neglect have caused him now that he is an adult.

Outside of streaming, NBC’s “This Is Us” has a scene in season one where someone has a panic attack, and many praised the show for its accurate portrayal of the illness.

Even Tourette’s received proper representation on “South Park” of all things. The Tourette Syndrome Association praised the 2007 episode “Le Petit Tourette” and how it accurately 

portrayed Tourette’s, notwithstanding some of the obvious jokes the episode had.

Moving forward, producers and creators of many of the popular shows and films people see should take more steps regarding how to accurately portray mental illness. When done right, it can be used to raise awareness of a particular disorder, but when done wrong, all it does is give those with the said disorder a bad rep.

Popular culture has evolved tremendously over the last three decades. As such, the handling of difficult subject matter such as mental illness should be handled with a modicum of respect. It has normalized us to the topic, but now is the chance to raise awareness rather than to negatively stereotype it.