A report released this week by Dr. Peter Byrne of Newham University Hospital in London takes issue with the portrayal of mental health in Hollywood. Dr. Byrne highlights a number of characters, including Heath Ledger’s Joker from the Batman series and Jim Carrey’s character(s) in Me, Myself and Irene, which “represented a new low [for] laughing at people with severe mental illness.”

Titled ‘Screening Madness’, the report highlights lazy and derivational stereotypes that perpetuate the myth that people with mental health problems are either stupid or dangerous.

According to Dr Byrne, “Mental health stereotypes have not changed over a century of cinema. If anything, the comedy is crueller and the deranged psycho killer even more demonic.”

Heath Ledger’s Joker is a case in point. Dr. Byrne points out that the character’s violence and humor is based almost entirely on a misunderstanding of schizophrenia. At one point in the film, “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.”

“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.”

The portrayal of mental illness in the media has been something we have focused on for a long time in G2C Online. In an interview with Dr. David Porteous a couple of years ago, he pointed out that there is a real dearth of knowledge about mental health and genetics among the general public, who have been let down by the failings of traditional media:

“All too often I find that when I’m reading articles in the media, genetic concepts used inappropriately and sometimes quite damagingly.”

While Dr. Porteous was referring primarily to the news media, we should have similar expectations of the movie industry, even when we are dealing with the domain of fiction.

This is underlined by a survey in Dr. Byrne’s report, which found that 44% of people believe that people with a mental illness tend to act violently. He points out that people may be arriving at these misperceptions because of what they see on the silver screen – 49% of those surveyed also reported seeing individuals with a mental illness acting violently in films. While we should not draw too many conclusions from a correlation, it is an interesting statistic to ponder.

We have come to expect a high level of professionalism from actors in major roles. Ledger’s preparations for the role of Joker, for example, are legendary. Had the film’s producers shown a similar commitment to understanding mental illness, then perhaps we could have had a more accurate script. Then again, according to moviemistakes.com, which has identified 60 other errors in the movie, this may be far too much to ask.