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The Ever-Present Stigma of Mental Health

Credit Sam Wooley

Credit Sam Wooley

Credit Sam Wooley

Shawntae Teague, Writer

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If one were to research the horror genre back through time, a common trope would be found: the vilification of people with mental health disabilities and personality disorders. The use of this trope, which paints disabled people in a negative light, perpetuates the stigmatization of mental health, yet is never acknowledged as what it truly is; ableism.

Split, a 2017 horror film both written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is based entirely on the trope, using a person with a personality disorder as its antagonist. In the, James McAvoy portrays a man who has dissociative identity disorder (DID), who kidnaps and entraps three teenage girls.

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James McAvoy in Split (2017), Credit Screenrant

The film constructs a twisted and inaccurate view of the way a person with such a disability behaves, for the simple sake of being the next big thriller and turning a profit.

Split is another entry in the dismayingly vast canon of stories that do a lot to demonize mental illness,” Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair said.

“Dissociative identity disorder is a controversial topic in psychiatric study, and not one understood with any scientific consensus. But Split treats it as certain and dangerous fact,” Lawson continued.

Of course, Split and the horror genre aren’t the only culprits of the trope.

For example, in the popular Netflix drama Orange Is The New Black, Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, one of the few characters that are confirmed to be mentally ill or disabled, is written as the violent wildcard.

Image result for trevor philips

Grand Theft Auto character, Trevor Phillips Credit


Another example, in videogames this time, is Trevor Phillips of Grand Theft Auto V, who is portrayed as violent, threatening, and outrageously unpredictable.


Mentally ill people are almost exclusively portrayed as violent, dangerous offenders, which is not only stigmatizing, but also highly inaccurate. In fact, people without mental disabilities are more likely to be perpetrators of violence against people with disabilities.

George Gerbner, a researcher who studied violence on television and how it shapes perceptions of society, outlined how media portrayal of mentally ill are reflective of prejudices rather than fact:

  1. Unpredictability; “If you cannot predict how people might behave, you cannot be expected to act considerately and rationally toward them.”
  2. Dangerousness; “The sense of dangerousness is constantly reinforced by having the label ‘ex-mental patient’ attached almost exclusively to violent and bizarre behavior.”
  3. Evil; “Sinful or immoral behavior warrants an irrational and brutal response toward the persons depicted, as if to suggest that they ask for it or deserve it.”


The result of movies like Split and literature that utilizes the same “mentally deranged murderer” or “psychotic rapist” trope is a warped perception of mental disabilities transferred to the audience, which leads to unfounded fear.

The media uses mental illness as a convenient way to explain away characters’ violence with the justification that no one “normal” is going to act that way. This negative portrayal not only contributes to fear of those who are mentally ill, but works toward keeping the deeply-entrenched ideology that being different equates to being lesser.

Neurotypical people, or people who are cognitively, intellectually, and developmentally “regular”, do not and cannot have the same frame of reference as disabled people. Therefore, they fail to separate fiction from reality, and cannot (or choose not to) empathize with the negative effects the common portrayal has on those who are disabled or mentally ill.

People may watch The Dark Knight and experience what they perceive is innocent entertainment, when they are actually being served sensationalism in the form of The Joker, that is detrimental to both the reputation and safety of those who have the mental illness which is portrayed.

Since the average Jane doesn’t have a degree in psychology, most people’s main source from which they gather an understanding of mental illness is the media. Media portrayal is significant, as it influences society on a grand scale.

Mass media influences the products one buys, the places one goes, informs what fads are in, etc. Since it determines what we consume and even how we act, it can easily shape the way particular people are viewed and treated in everyday life.

Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year.  With such a large portion of the population falling under the blanket of “mentally ill”, be it depression, anxiety, schizophrenia (which is not the same as DID, wow who knew), and a great deal more, the need for accurate and positive representation is clear.

This issue goes back for centuries and the problem lies within the authors, screenwriters, musicians, poets, and so on, who have and will continue to contribute.

As long as no one faults them, as long as the reflex to call anyone who brings this to attention “sensitive” or “offended by everything”, as long as no one is held accountable, people’s lives will continue to be at risk.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness listed nine ways to fight the mental health stigma, a few of which include:

  • Talk openly about mental health
  • Encouraging equality in how people perceive physical illness and mental illness
  • Showing empathy and compassion for those living with a mental health condition.
  • Stop the criminalization of those who live with mental illness.
  • Push back against the way people who live with mental illness are portrayed in the media

In order to see change in the perception of mental illness, it is on everyone to do their part.

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The Ever-Present Stigma of Mental Health