In the last decade, there has been a significant surge in mental health awareness throughout the media. Mainstream shows such as Thirteen Reasons Why, My Mad Fat Diary, Sharp Objects, Jessica Jones and many more have utilized this current trend.
The film industry has also caught wind, producing movies such as Black Swan, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Silver Linings Playbook and Split.
What’s the appeal in these shows? As awareness continues to rise, people want issues to relate to, characters who normalize a topic that used to be taboo. However, is the relatability of these mentally ill characters really inclusive of everyone? Shows and films depicting mental health seem to be littered overwhelming with angsty teenagers and attractive young adults.
Consequently, there seems to be a large group of people being ignored in the mainstream; parents suffering from mental illness. Psychologist Otto Wahl did research into mentally ill characters in prime time TV and found ‘almost three-fourths of them had no family connections.’
“Why are young characters being prioritized over their parents?”
Ironically, being a parent is arguably one of the most challenging roles one can face, so why are young characters being prioritized over their parents? In fact, many of the mentally ill parents on our mainstream screens are either depicted as extreme villains or responsible for neglecting and damaging their children.
The critically acclaimed film We Need to Talk About Kevin, tells the story of a tumultuous mother-son relationship resulting in tragic consequences. The film follows the typical pattern of depicting mental health specifically through a young person.
However, it also gives references to postnatal depression in the mother, Eva. Unfortunately, like many other films, the mother is frequently shown in a negative or unrealistic light.
Throughout the film, Eva conceals her illness and does not seek any help. Despite efforts to the contrary, Eva ultimately neglects her child emotionally and even damages him physically by breaking his arm out of rage.
The film ends with her son becoming a killer, a possible sign that Eva ultimately failed in parenting. Negative and extreme depictions like this have the power to create unrealistic stereotypes of mothers suffering from postnatal depression and other mental illnesses.
Mental health intellectuals have stated that ‘the general public assumes parents who are “crazy”, that is, diagnosed with mental illness, probably abuse or neglect their children’. Could the media be contributing to these negative stereotypes?
Even worse, the father remains oblivious to Kevin’s behavior and blames his wife for their broken relationship. This attitude may mirror the opinions of many; if the child is disobedient, it’s a reflection on the parents. Therefore, is it easier to conceal mental illness, rather than being blamed for your child’s disruptive conduct?
This is not the only film to depict postnatal depression in an unrealistic and negative light. The recent film Tully portrays a mother suffering from postpartum depression, and postpartum psychosis after creating an imaginary nanny to help her with motherhood.
Yet again, the film offers an extreme angle of mothers with mental illness. The character stays awake all night and engages in dangerous behaviour, all whilst talking to her imaginary friend.
If popular culture is representing mental illness amongst mothers in this way, does it affect how we perceive it in reality?
Are mother’s considered negligent or unloving for having a mental illness? Or are these illnesses overlooked and simply attested to the everyday stress and struggles of motherhood?
“If popular culture is representing mental illness this way, does it affect how we perceive it in reality?”
The hit TV show Big Little Lies has received praise for dealing with issues of domestic abuse surrounding the character Celeste, and the aftermath involving her PTSD. Like many TV shows, Celeste’s mental illness is dramatized and leads to a custody battle for her children.
Despite winning custody, the question of Celeste’s ability to parent due to her mental health is scrutinized. Due to both grief and PTSD, Celeste engages in numerous sexual encounters, dependence on medication and pushes her son to the ground in anger.
Climactically, Celeste is ruled in court to be fit to parent. Nevertheless, does her struggle reflect real parental concerns? That being open about the struggles associated with mental illness could lead others to question your ability to parent, or in extreme cases, result in losing your children?
Yet again, dramatizing a serious mental illness may contribute to creating extreme and somewhat irrational fears in parents exposing their mental health issues.
Unfavorable representations can be pushed to the limits when we look at our Hollywood villains, many of whom are a product of mentally ill parents.
Notorious villains such as Norman Bates, Grant Ward, Samara, Kingpin and Micheal Myers could all fall under the unfortunate category of being raised and significantly damaged by their unstable parents.
The film Carrie is an undisputed horror classic, yet it is also responsible for, again, vilifying a mentally ill parent. Carrie’s mother embodies many negative stereotypes surrounding mental illness; having an intense fixation on religion, possibly suffering from schizophrenia and consequently harming her daughter both physically and mentally. The unfortunate link between the mother’s possible mental illnesses and the extreme negative impact she has on Carrie is evident.
The popular thriller Shutter Island is yet another example of linking mental illness to parents-turned-villains. The mother, Dolores, clearly suffers from mental illness, yet does not seek help and consequently drowns her children. The father does not fare much better as he consistently overlooks Dolores’ mental illness, and dramatically ends up creating an alternate personality to deal with the tragedy.
By turning the mother into a murderer and the father into the criminally insane, the film serves to perpetuate the idea that there is an inherent link between media portrayal of parental mental illness and consequently substantially damaging their children.
When focusing on mainstream film and television, regrettably most parents suffering from mental illness are women. Are these portrayals a reflection of the old fashioned notion that women are more likely to succumb to ‘hysterical’ and ‘hyper-sensitive’ behaviour?
“There is an inherent link between media portrayal of parental mental illness and consequently substantially damaging their children.”
One of the few prime time TV shows that displays mental illness in a male parent is This Is Us. The character of Randall suffers from extreme panic attacks and anxiety due to stress. Interestingly, unlike his female counterparts previously mentioned, Randall has a healthy and open relationship with his children, as well as a secure job and home.
This is one of the few mainstream TV shows that aims to educate rather than dramatize. To show how the ordinary person suffers, yet handles mental illness, rather than turning them into a neglectful, abusive and sometimes murderous parent.
So, why is there a lack of mentally ill parents on our screens?
Mental health experts found that mentally ill parents describe ‘fulfilling the parenting role as extremely important… they may prioritize their children’s needs, and neglect their own‘. Being a parent requires strength and the ability to protect your children, showing signs of illness and possibly weakness may strongly contradict this idea.
The extreme and negative media representations of parental mental illness may also promote ideas of shame and fear that parents could possibly damage their children in some way.
No matter the reason for lack of media representation, mental illness is very real, normal and present in all walks of life. Honesty and openness may be the only chance we have to crush these false extreme and negative stereotypes.