Everything You’ve Learned About Mental Illness From Hollywood Is All Wrong

Throw out everything you think you know about mental illness. Movies and television have been feeding you lies.

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This just in, y’all: TV and Hollywood films are not the best place to get facts about mental illness (or probably anything?) Whether you’re basing the entirety of your perception of eating disorders on a Lifetime series or you think you know everything there is to know about schizophrenia because you’ve seen A Beautiful Mind three times, you should be aware that you do not have the full picture.

Stereotypes being perpetuated through popular media is nothing new. Edify yourself, and read on for eight psychological “facts” about mental illness we’ve been fed by television and movies:

People with Tourette’s syndrome cuss all the time.

When you hear Tourette’s syndrome, you probably think of one particular feature for which it’s become famous: letting out strings of extremely offensive curse words, usually at inopportune times. For an example, you could watch this YouTube clip of this dude in a courtroom from a 1989 episode of the television series LA Law.

Contrary to popular belief, though, swearing isn’t always a feature of the neurological disorder. “[T]his only occurs in about 1 in 10 children with Tourette’s syndrome,” according to Patient. (The condition develops in people between ages 2 and 14, typically around age 7.)

As Patient also notes, “it must be emphasised that if this occurs, the child cannot help swearing. It is not a reflection on their moral character or upbringing.”

Other tics include eye blinking, touching or smelling objects, head jerking, repeating observed movements, shoulder shrugging, stepping in a certain pattern, eye darting, obscene gesturing, nose twitching, bending or twisting, mouth movements, or hopping.

You can talk yourself out of schizophrenia. 

A Beautiful Mind is a moving depiction of an incredibly gifted mathematician, John Nash, whose life is altered indelibly by schizophrenia. Although the biopic’s plot does in some ways work against the stereotype of schizophrenics as always violent and erratic, it’s still not the whole story for most people who suffer from the illness.

“Regardless of the biographical exclusions, John Nash, in reality and in the movie, is unlike other schizophrenic patients,” Roberto Gil writes for In Vivo: News from Columbia Health Sciences. “He has a superior intellectual capacity, while most schizophrenic patients suffer from impaired cognition.”

Additionally, Nash is depicted as eschewing medication and instead reasoning his way out of his hallucinations. Gil notes:

“Deprived of medications and treatment, many schizophrenics lose, if they ever had them, jobs, family, friends, financial stability, and homes. It is not just a coincidence that homelessness is so common among schizophrenics. The real and fictional Dr. Nash kept ties with professionals, family, and friends because they were very tolerant of his symptoms.”

Treatment is evil.

The conversation about overmedicating is one certainly worth having, specifically in a culture that pathologizes the natural complexity of human emotion, often in gendered ways. But there remains a major dearth of misinformation about mental illness and its treatments, which results in many people who would greatly benefit from medication never receiving help.

One of the more damaging misconceptions is that medication is only for the weak. On par with this is the idea that medication fundamentally changes who you are. As Angelica Jade Bastién writes in Vulture:

“Out of all the tropes on this list, this is the most dangerous. Treatment varies from person to person, of course, but the idea that medication robs you of your personality is odious. Contrary to what’s often shown on TV, psychiatrists and mental-health professionals aren’t manipulative villains or incompetent caregivers.

“These claims contribute to the fear that prevents people from finding the right treatment. In recent decades, TV shows like Monk, Pretty Little Liars, Ally McBeal, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have all contributed to this trend.”

OCD sufferers are all terrified of germs.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), for those who don’t actually know someone with the disorder (and perhaps some who do), is synonymous with a fear of germs, an obsession with order and cleanliness, and a propensity for counting.

Although these traits certainly do show up in some OCD sufferers, this is only a very superficial understanding of the condition, which is defined by unfounded anxieties that can attach themselves to any topic and resultant attempts to quell that anxiety through irrational compulsive behaviors or rituals.

There’s nothing off-limits to OCD. Often, fears will be related to ideas that fundamentally threaten an individual’s sense of identity—for example, the fear of killing someone you love, the fear of molesting a child, or the fear of having a sexual orientation that runs counter to who you’ve always believed yourself to be.

Depictions of characters such as the protagonist of the award-winning show Monk, whose fears include germs, needles, milk, death, snakes, mushrooms, heights, crowds, and elevators—focus more on external behaviors without taking a deep dive into the OCD sufferer’s inner world. Plus, as Dr. Suck Won Kim, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, tells the Chicago Tribune regarding Monk’s fears:

“Those are phobic disorders. They’re not related to OCD at all. Many of them are forms of agoraphobia. I’ve seen over 2,000 patients with OCD, and none of them has complained of having trouble going on an airplane.”

Sociopaths eat brains.

Speaking of tropes that perpetuate negative views of mental health professionals, Hannibal Lecter is a cannibalistic psychiatrist—fun! The protagonist of The Silence of the Lambs is perhaps our favorite psychopath. Er, sociopath?

(There is debate about the distinction between a sociopath and a psychopath, but according to one person on the internet, there’s no diagnostic difference. We’re certainly not mental health professionals, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just use the term interchangeably in this section.)

But is Lecter even really a psychopath? According to health, science, and tech reporter Rachel Feltman, no.

On top of that, despite what years of ingesting way too many MSNBC specials would suggest, doing something completely heinous like eating brains isn’t even a prerequisite for being a psychopath. As Feltman points out in Quartz:

“Sometimes, a psychopath can look a lot like your friendly neighborhood neuroscientist; James Fallon made headlines when he accidentally diagnosed his own brain scan as showing psychopathic features. After further research and self-evaluation, Fallon categorized himself as a ‘pro-social psychopath’—one who can keep his behavior within socially-acceptable bounds, despite not feeling true empathy for others. …At the end of the day, though, he’d ‘rather beat someone in an argument than beat them up.'”

Dissociative personality disorder is just like “Fight Club.” 

Apparently, there’s a whole lot of confusion about this illness, which is used to be called multiple personality disorder but is now referred to as dissociative disorder. Even the professionals are a bit unsure. As psychiatrist Jason Hunziker tells University of Utah health sciences radio The Scope:

“There is so much controversy, even in the mental health industry about dissociative identity disorder. There are those that swear by almost the Hollywood version of what this looks like. And then there are others who say people clearly use dissociation to help protect themselves, and that’s kind of where I fall in line. I think that people use that mechanism to get out of a stressful situation, and they then have a different personality style that interacts with you during those moments that [their] real self is not present.”

According to one Cracked contributor, Fight Club doesn’t get it right, either. “Those with [dissociative] identity disorder don’t just wake up and realize they’ve been living as another person,” they write. “They always know about the other personalities, and don’t black out and live as another person. Amnesia and fugue states do happen, but what you see in movies is writers combining them to suit their narrative.”

Mentally Ill = Violent

Speaking of Fight Club, let’s talk about the other popular myth surrounding mentally ill people: They’re all violent. It just ain’t true.

“It will surprise most people—and disappoint Hollywood—but the fact is that the mentally ill are rarely violent and contribute very little to overall violence in the United [States],” Richard A. Friedman writes in Alternet. “It is estimated that only 3 percent to 5 percent of all violence in the country can be attributed to mental illness.”

Those who are much more likely than mentally ill folks to be violent are people who misuse drugs or alcohol. “The fact is that you have far more to fear from an intoxicated businessman in a suit than from a homeless schizophrenic man muttering on the street corner,” Friedman writes.

“People with no mental disorder who abuse alcohol or drugs are nearly seven times as likely as those without substance abuse to be violent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.” (Then again, wouldn’t drug and alcohol abuse imply addiction, and isn’t addiction a mental illness?)

You can get over an eating disorder in a few days. 

We can all agree that ‘90s television and culture have taught us a lot—like, for example, how to wear a denim hat every day for an entire summer with few or no social repercussions. (Mom, how did you let this happen?) What it did not teach us was how to recognize or treat an eating disorder.

Many have called into question the depiction of disordered eating in D.J. Tanner from Full House. In season four, D.J. begins starving herself to try and look thinner for an upcoming pool party, and then, within just a handful of episodes, the problem magically disappears. One viewer summarizes the nearly instantaneous resolution to the problem, which comes—surprise—during one of Full House‘s famous heart-to-hearts:

“…Danny tells D.J. that people come in all shapes and sizes, and that he himself struggled with body image issues growing up because he was so tall and skinny. Oh yeah, Danny, being a tall thin white man is a real hill to climb! Poor Danny! So anyway, Danny tells D.J. that it’s what’s inside that counts and that her friends shouldn’t judge her for looking terrible in a bathing suit and I guess that if more dads gave that same brief, ill-conceived speech then anorexia wouldn’t be such a problem.”

What Full House misses is that an eating disorder is a deadly mental illness that sufferers often struggle with for life, even with professional help. Heart-to-hearts are kind of beside the point.

Anna Cherry
Anna Cherry is the staff writer for Multiply. She's lived in a few different places, written in more, and is now back in the state of her birth (Missouri).