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Film portrays characters with mental health issues as relatable

By Amanda Scheer and Leah Coffman
On February 25, 2013

An estimated one in four adults suffer from some form of mental health issue during their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Depression, anxiety or other mental health issues are incredibly prevalent yet their treatment in popular culture can be unreasonably harsh.

The word "crazy" is all too easy to throw around regarding mental health, which still carries a heavy stigma.

In a 2010 study from the UK's Department of Health, nearly half of all mentally ill characters on TV were shown as dangerous either to themselves or others. The long-running "Law and Order" franchise and its spin-off "Special Victims Unit" seems at time almost to rely on the mentally ill as their supply of criminals.

However, the tide is beginning to turn for mental health on TV and in film. Characters such as Sherlock Holmes from the BBC's "Sherlock" or Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory" clearly are affected by mental health issues yet are lovable heroes and main characters. Sherlock even refers to himself as "a highly functioning sociopath."

In the Oscar-nominated films "Silver Linings Playbook" deals prominently with mental health issues. The main character suffers from bipolar disorder, a disease suffered by approximately 2.8 percent of Americans according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The film's portrayal of the condition is much more sympathetic than a typical portrayal of mental illness in Hollywood.

By focusing on living with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or addiction, the film is able to portray relatable characters. It is no coincidence that the film's two lead actors, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, are both nominated for Academy Awards for their thoughtful, intelligent performances.

The commonality of such issues as depression, addiction and bipolar or anxiety disorders makes the accurate, or at least more sympathetic, portrayal in popular culture critical to a greater understanding.

Mental health issues are prominent in the national conversation after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Portrayals of the mentally ill less as ax-weilding maniacs and more as relatable characters will help reduce the stigma in admitting to mental diseases and the ease of seeking care.


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