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"From Bird Box to Bandersnatch, it’s time to stop using mental illness as a lazy TV trope"

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Emily Reynolds
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Mentally ill people are thrown under the bus too often in cinema. It’s time we looked for new themes, argues freelance writer Emily Reynolds

What do Bird Box and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch have in common? They’re both huge cinematic events, yes, and they both streamed on Netflix to huge buzz over the festive season. But that’s not what caught my eye after I watched them both this weekend.

Instead, it was a frequent cinematic trope that I noticed – the use of mental illness as a plot device.

In Bird Box, mentally ill people are the only ones immune from the monster at the heart of the movie; the only ones who can look at it and remain unharmed. Later, years into the timeline of the film, marauding gangs of them roam around the countryside trying to open the eyes of those who don’t have the same protection, condemning them to death. They’re depicted as violent, angry and unrelenting – a not uncommon depiction of mentally ill people in films and TV. 

And in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the lead character’s mental stability is in question from the beginning – for much of the film, you have no idea whether what’s happening is ‘real’ or whether it’s ‘all inside his head’. 

This isn’t a unique phenomenon – far from it. How many horror films, after all, feature a ‘psychotic’ killer, or hinge on a not-so-shocking twist that reveals that none of the preceding two hours even happened at all? Psycho, Halloween, Shutter Island, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday 13th: in such films, to be mentally ill simply means to be violent, to be dangerous, to want to cause harm to other people. 

This, alongside sensationalist media coverage of those with mental illnesses, are a huge contributing factor to their vilification, specifically those with psychotic disorders. Headlines often point out crimes committed by patients with schizophrenia or who are experiencing psychosis; Mind point out that there is “more media misinformation about schizophrenia than about any other type of mental health problem”. 

In fact, those affected with schizophrenia or other mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victim of crime, not the perpetrator – a far cry from the rampaging, violent criminals that TV and film would have us believe. 

One study found that students saw mental illness more negatively after watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – so films have a real life impact, too. 

Some films attempt to show mental illness in a more sensitive light – think Silver Linings Playbook, for example, which highlights the difficulties of bipolar disorder without sensationalising. But these are few and far between.  You’re far more likely to see a mentally ill person as a villain.

It’s not just that it’s offensive, either – it’s simply boring, too. What fun is there in watching a film for 90 minutes only to find that half of what happened was just in the protagonist’s head? Give us a real, juicy twist! Give us a real villain! Mental illness is so much of a shorthand that it’s become predictable – and that’s not entertaining for anyone. 

It’s not just a matter of entertainment, though. There are so many other issues related to mental illness – poverty, austerity, racism, access to care – that a lazy script might not seem like the biggest deal. But stigma can ruin lives: as Rethink’s Rachel Perkins wrote in the Independent, 60% of people with mental health problems say the stigma they face is so bad it’s “worse than the symptoms of the illness itself”. 

It’s important that we chip away at it as much as we can – and changing the way we show mental illness in film and TV would be one way to do that. It’s boring, uninteresting and offensive to weaponise mental illness like this. Isn’t it time we tried a little harder?

Images: Netflix