Portrayal of schizophrenia in movies

Akli Hadid
Academy of Korean Studies, South Korea

 Schizophrenia photo by Billy Wilson
 Photography by Billy Wilson

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder in which patients experience irrational paranoid thoughts or simply affective flattening. The onset of the disease is usually around the age of twenty-one. Some 42% of patients tend to have their symptoms progressively disappear, 35% have an intermediate outcome, and 27% do poorly. Those from wealthy families and good healthcare facilities have better outcomes than those from poor families with little access to healthcare.

The media, however, especially the movies, portray schizophrenia in a different light than the actual disorder. Common misconceptions are that schizophrenics are violent, drink alcohol heavily or use narcotics, behave comically, or suffer from a non-curable disorder. Some believe that schizophrenia is punishment for acting immorally, or that contact with a schizophrenic can lead to mental disorder. Others believe schizophrenia is the result of poor parenting and that schizophrenics behave unpredictably, are loners and isolated from society, or manifest disruptive behavior.

To be more precise on how the movies portray schizophrenia, forty-five movies dealing with schizophrenia1 were reviewed and the main theme present in the film noted. The major themes implied that persons with schizophrenia are violent or geniuses; that schizophrenia is drug or alcohol-induced; that schizophrenics have had a troubled childhood and that they spend a long periods in mental hospitals.

As schizophrenia is a mental disorder, most delusions and hallucinations occur within the brain, which makes the disorder difficult to portray in a movie. Perhaps the best-known movie about schizophrenia, A Beautiful Mind (2001), portrays the character’s hallucinations in a greatly exaggerated manner, since hallucinations are mostly auditory rather than visual. Often film writers and directors are poorly informed about schizophrenia, resulting in erroneous portrayals of the people with the disorder, as addressed in the following subsections.

 

 

The character is violent

Several movies portrayed schizophrenics as violent characters, serial killers, war heroes, or mobsters. The 1989 movie Santa Sangre depicts an adult with schizophrenia growing up in a very violent environment filled with drugs and murder. In Nightbreed (1990) a doctor gives drugs to a patient with schizophrenia and orders him to commit murders, which he does. In the Fisher King (1991) a man with schizophrenia commits mass murder. In Spider Forest (2004) a patient with schizophrenia is the main suspect for a series of murders as his finger prints were found, but is too cut out from reality to give his version of the account. In Mr. Brooks (2007) the main character has some traits of schizophrenia and is also a serial killer. In The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) the main character, Joan of Arc, leads war by following her hallucinations and has some symptoms of schizophrenia.

Unfortunately, several movies portray people with schizophrenia as serial killers. This can lead to confusion among the families of those with schizophrenia who might think their family member could develop violent behavior. Many psychiatrists argue that rather than mental disorders, it is alcohol and drugs that tends to cause violent behavior and mass murder or serial killings.

The character with schizophrenia is a genius

In the Caveman’s Valentine (2001) the main character is a genius pianist who has delusions of grandeur, paranoid delusions, and symptoms similar to schizophrenia. Another movie featuring a music prodigy with schizophrenia, The Soloist (2009), portrays a genius pianist who ends up getting schizophrenia and becomes homeless before his talent gets noticed. A Beautiful Mind (2001) features the story of John Nash, the Nobel Prize for Economics winner in 1994, who struggled all his life with schizophrenia. This film has misled people to confuse schizophrenia with synesthesia, a neurological disorder that makes learning a lot easier. Finally, in Homeless to Harvard, the Liz Murray Story (2003), the main character is the daughter of a schizophrenic mother and a substance addict father who ends up studying and making it to Harvard.

The main misconception is that this might lead some families to believe that anyone with schizophrenia might have hidden talents or genius abilities, often features present in some forms of autism but rarely in schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is drug or alcohol induced

A common theme in movies is portraying schizophrenia as a mental disorder induced by alcohol and drugs. While alcohol and drugs can induce hallucinations, paranoid delusions or delirium tremens, research shows that schizophrenia is not alcohol or drug induced. In Santa Sangre (1989) the boy experiments with drugs and prostitution. In Nightbreed (1990) the doctor drugs his patient, which leads to the onset of schizophrenia. In Keane (2004) the main character experiments with drugs, which also leads to schizophrenia. In A Scanner Darkly (2006) a popular drug emerges in the United States which causes addicts to have schizophrenia.

Such portrayals can mislead families into thinking that symptoms of schizophrenia are due to recreational drugs or alcohol causing  schizophrenia. While it is acknowledged that 80 to 90% patients with schizophrenia smoke, often heavily, and that many drink coffee heavily, no study has found a link between drugs or alcohol and schizophrenia.

The character with schizophrenia had a troubled childhood

Another common theme is that the character had a troubled childhood before being diagnosed with schizophrenia. In Spider (2002) the main character remembers a traumatic event (his father’s murder) before developing symptoms of schizophrenia. In Karthik calling Karthik (2010) the patient had a troubled childhood where his brother died while trying to killing him, and reminiscing that episode causes the onset of schizophrenia.

Research shows that patients with schizophrenia have diverse backgrounds, some coming from wealthy families and happy childhoods, others having more disturbed childhoods. Portrayals of troubled childhood being the direct factor causing schizophrenia can be misleading for families who may think that a traumatic event the patient experienced as a child is what caused the onset of schizophrenia.

The character with schizophrenia is in a mental hospital

Early movies used to portray characters with schizophrenia as living in insane asylums. The Snake Pit (1948) deals with a character’s journey in an asylum as she is treated for schizophrenia. Through a Glass Darkly (1961) is about a patient with schizophrenia just released from an asylum. In Spider (2002) the character is also taken to an insane asylum and set to stay there. The same happens in the Bollywood movie Shabd (2005), in Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (2006), in Spider Forest (2004), and in Reprised (2006) a successful writer is likewise sent to an asylum. Most stay in an asylum for almost the entire duration of the movie or stay there for a long time.

Patients with schizophrenia tend to be hospitalized only if they threaten to be violent or to commit suicide, otherwise they may  be placed there for observation before they can leave the hospital. Most get a few medical tests before they are released, and very few spend days on a hospital bed in an asylum as is portrayed in the movies. Such portrayals can mislead families into thinking that patients with schizophrenia should be hospitalized and receive violent treatment.

Other films have very unrealistic portrayals of schizophrenia. In Savage Grace (2007) a wealthy mother commits incest with her schizophrenic son. Though the film is based in a true story, such cases are very rare. In Angel Baby, two patients with schizophrenia meet at a hospital and fall in love, a rare occurrence. In Take Shelter (2011) a man’s wife develops schizophrenia and he develops it himself, suggesting that schizophrenia is catching.

Finally, while most patients develop schizophrenia around the age of twenty-one, in several movies patients develop schizophrenia much later, usually as middle-aged men and women. Very few movies have an accurate depiction of schizophrenia, as very few writers and directors are fully aware of the nature of this mental disorder.

Note

  1. The full list of movies is available from the following link:  http://mentalhealthdaily.com/2014/03/27/all-movies-about-schizophrenia-an-extensive-list/ (accessed 12/23/2014)

AKLI HADID, BA, MA is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Academy of Korean Studies, majoring in sociology and Korean studies. He was a Professor at Kaya University and is currently the Assistant Coordinator of the ITS Program at Korea University Sejong Campus.