Is accuracy sufficient in depicting mental health on film?

Many believe that the portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer in the Netflix series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is accurate. But is accuracy enough when it comes to depicting mental states on screen?

As director of the new Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab for Promoting Mental Health through the Cinematic Arts at Northwestern University (PPSL), I have hosted many conversations about film and mental health with guests drawn from psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, film studies, religious studies , and Hollywood, and we’ve studied many movies and TV shows together. I have come to believe that compelling depictions of mental health are often the result of a complex interplay of accuracy, artistic freedom, and other factors.

For example, psychiatrist and PPSL board member Crystal T. Clark introduced me to the Amazon series Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am Modern love, in which Anne Hathaway’s character (who we discover suffers from bipolar disorder) moves through life as if in a brightly colored musical. Suddenly, however, she collapses into bed in a depression and barely manages to keep the appointment she made. In the real world, though, crowds of people don’t dance with you in the street when you’re in a manic phase. This is definitely incorrect. Also, you don’t suddenly become depressed; it’s a gradual process, but boy, does it make for effective television and add to our understanding of bipolar disorder.

In darker terrain, movies like Fight Club and Psycho do not accurately portray dissociative identity disorder (DID). In fact, DID may not even technically exist, so how could it be depicted accurately? Still, being torn from a part of your consciousness is a real experience – if not as extreme as what we see depicted. And these films are undoubtedly influential works of cinema that deeply affect their audiences.

Some horror films may present the most accurate media portrayals of mental health we’ve seen – from The Babadook to Get out to La Llorona. Such works highlight the isolation of mothering a child with special needs, repressed grief and trauma caused by racism or genocide. Yet horror can also be exploitative and use trauma simply for entertainment.

Back to Dahmer, which went to great lengths to be accurate in its portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer’s psychology, but there were still questions: What is the motivation behind making the series now? And what is the impact on the victims’ families or the LGBTQIA community? And isn’t this series further isolating those with mental health issues by choosing to portray such a violent and disturbed individual?

Importantly, in our lab we expose student writers and directors to as many voices and perspectives as possible. They are encouraged to decide for themselves: is accuracy the most important aspect? When does creative license take precedence over accuracy? What are the ethics of my portrayal, even if accurate, especially when my characters are based on real people? Who is being helped? Who is hurt? Does what I portray help normalize mental health or further isolate people with mental health issues? Ultimately, what is my goal as a writer and director, and what techniques am I comfortable using?

Bottom Line: If your goal is to normalize mental states, whether bipolar disorder, DID, or sociopathy (as described in Dahmer), you should be encouraged to present the most nuanced images whenever you can and keep the question, Is my representation accurate?, always on the table. But at the same time and perhaps ironically, as Dahmer showed, you should know that accurate imagery alone does not necessarily lead to the kind of positive change you may desire. Instead, it may require more thought, art and innovation.

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