A century of negative movie stereotypes of mental illness

Characters with mental health problems are being depicted as more demonic and crueler than at any time in movie history, according to a new report for Time to Change [1], the anti-stigma mental health campaign, out today. The report claims that depictions haven't moved on from the silent era, revealing that characters with a mental illness are either evil or simple, with nothing in between.

The report, Screening Madness, written by psychiatrist and film expert Dr Peter Byrne [2], reveals that film depictions of people with experience of mental health problems have become more damaging. “Mental health stereotypes have not changed over a century of cinema. If anything, the comedy is crueler and the deranged psycho killer even more demonic," Dr Byrne reveals in the report.

The key finding from the report shows that the public gets its understanding of mental illness from movies, more than from any other type of media. A YouGov survey commissioned for the report found that almost 50 per cent [3] (49 per cent) of the public have seen people with a mental illness acting violently in films. The survey also found that almost half of people polled [4] (44 per cent) believe that people with a mental illness will act violently.

Citing Batman - the Dark Knight as a low point in depicting mental illness, with the violence and humour based almost entirely on a misunderstanding of schizophrenia, Dr Byrne says:

“Batman describes the Joker as a schizophrenic clown, and when the film's second hero Harvey Dent becomes “Two-Face" and embraces evil, the familiar stereotype of schizophrenia is activated."

Dr Byrne continues: “This is omnipresent in cinema misrepresentations… the psycho killer is immortal and sadistic, motivated by madness… in almost all psychosis films, that character will kill," says Dr Byrne.
The report also shows that while the movie industry embraces its responsibility on depicting homosexuality and racism accurately, depictions of mental illness continue to be based on prejudice.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was named as the film most remembered for depicting someone with a mental illness acting strangely or violently, despite it being released almost 35 years ago showing that the influence of movie stereotypes on attitudes can last a generation. While Jim Carrey's Me, Myself and Irene was released in 2000, and “represented a new low at laughing at people with severe mental illness", Dr Byrne says.

There are some exceptions. Daniel Craig's portrayal in Some Voices and Russell Crowe's A Beautiful Mind are more realistic portrayals of schizophrenia, says Dr Bryne.

Sue Baker, Director for Time to Change said: “This report highlights that movies are the main source of information that reinforces negative stereotypes of mental illness above and beyond any other form of media. We need to make it clear to directors and producers that they can still break box office records without wrecking lives."

The Time to Change campaign is England's biggest and most ambitious programme to end mental health discrimination. The campaign is run by leading mental health charities Mind and Rethink, and backed by £16 million from the Big Lottery Fund [5] and £4 million from Comic Relief [6].

William Little, PR Manager on 020 7840 3137 william.little@rethink.org
For out of office hours call 07940 924555 or 07850 788 514


1. Time to Change is England's most ambitious programme to end the discrimination faced by people with mental health problems, and improve the nation's wellbeing. Mind and Rethink are leading the programme, funded with £16m from the Big Lottery Fund and £4m from Comic Relief, and evaluated by the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London. For further information go to www.time-to-change.org.uk

2. Dr Peter Byrne is Consultant Psychiatrist, Newham University Hospital and Honorary Senior Lecturer, University College London. He is has also taught film studies at University College Dublin for seven years. He has programmed two mental health film festivals.

3. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1989 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 3rd and 6th July 2009. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

4. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1989 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 3rd and 6th July 2009. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

5. The Big Lottery Fund's support for Time to Change comes from its £165m Well-being programme. The Big Lottery Fund has been rolling out grants to health, education, environment and charitable causes across the UK since its inception in June 2004. It was established by Parliament on 1 December 2006. Full details of the work of the Big Lottery Fund, its programmes and awards are available on the website: www.biglotteryfund.org.uk Big Lottery Fund Press Office: 020 7211 1888 / Out of hours: 07867 500 572 Public Enquiries Line: 08454 102030 /
Textphone: 08456 021 659

6. Comic Relief is committed to supporting people living with mental health problems. The projects Comic Relief funds ensure people with mental health problems get their voices heard in the decisions that affect their lives and to get the help they need to recover. Comic Relief also helps people to promote their rights and reduce the stigma and discrimination they face so that they feel more included in society. The £4 million grant to Time to Change is part of Comic Relief's long standing commitment to this issue. For more information go to www.comicrelief.com