Uncategorized — 10 February 2014

All too often they are rambling derelicts howling at the moon. Or violent  psychopaths with murderous intent.

Historically, the way mental illness has been portrayed on the big screen and  on television did little to help remove stigma. But cinematic depictions of the  mentally ill as hopeless figures of fear, pity or ridicule are slowly being  challenged.

While, once, movies such as Psycho and One Flew Over The  Cuckoo’s Nest perpetuated negative stereotypes, a new wave of offerings  including Hollywood blockbuster Silver Linings Playbook and TV  comedy-drama United States of Tara moved  beyond crude caricatures.

Next week, filmmakers, health professionals and people living with mental  illness will convene at a symposium in Melbourne to explore in greater depth how  positive on-screen portrayals can improve lives.bigstock-Headache-5912394

The two-day event at the University of Melbourne – Try Walking in My  Shoes – will look at how empathy can be boosted and community awareness  raised by responsible, accurate depictions of what life is like for the mentally  ill.

It will also explore how negative portrayals can heighten public fear and  ignorance.

”The most obvious and probably most damaging stereotype is the psycho killer  and that idea that someone who’s mentally ill is also violent,” said  Fincina  Hopgood, co-convener of the symposium, which is  presented by the Dax Centre and  the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of  Emotions.

Dr Hopgood said that research showed  Hollywood portrayals of deranged,  violent killers  could feed into public fear of those with psychiatric  conditions, despite those with a mental illness being  more likely to be victims  of rather than perpetrators of crime.

”Hitchcock’s Psycho has a lot to answer for because it very much  links Norman Bates’ violence to his psychically damaged relationship with his  mother,” she said. ”Even in soap operas, there’s always been that stereotype  of the violent character who’s living next door who has a mental illness.”

She said other unhelpful stereotypes were the ”comic loony”, such as Jim  Carrey’s character in the comedy Me, Myself & Irene, in which he  plays a man with a split personality, and the ”idiot savant” as depicted by  Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

Among the Australian films to be discussed at the symposium will be The  Sunnyboy, a documentary that has been widely praised by mental health  experts for its sensitive, compelling depiction of the life of Sunnyboys singer  Jeremy Oxley and his battle with schizophrenia.

Director Kaye Harrison said she felt a responsibility to portray mental  illness accurately.

”I’d like it known that it is possible to make documentaries, which are  entertaining and engaging, which do have integrity in terms of representing  mental illness,” she said.

Diahann Lombardozzi will present her film Hypothesis, about her  12-year journey with bipolar disorder. The 44-year-old mother-of-two from Kew  said she hoped to challenge cinematic depictions of the condition, which often  portrayed people as dysfunctional and never able to recover.

”I’ve managed to have a career, a family, even care for my grandmother and  father but, in the meantime, there’s always a period where I get a little bit  overworked and, before I know it, I crash and have a bit of an episode,” she  said. ”But the positive thing is, over the period of my life, my episodes have  become less frequent and they haven’t been as severe.

”It’s important that people know that you can have an active and very  productive and rewarding life even with a mental illness.”

Stephen Macfarlane, director of aged psychiatry at Alfred Health and the  Caulfield Hospital, will examine the on-screen depiction of dementia.

”In The Simpsons, the single negative portrayal of somebody like  Grandpa Simpson can set people with dementia up to be perceived as figures of  fun who aren’t to be taken seriously – they’re an annoyance and it trivialises  an illness that’s actually a major global problem,” he said.

”It’s evolved over the decades, and there’s a vast increase in the number of  sympathetic portrayals, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of those  being outweighed by overwhelming negative depictions of those with mental  illness.”

This article first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald on 9 February, 2014.

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