M. Night Shyamalan's Latest Flop: Demonizing Mental Illness | Gradient
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M. Night Shyamalan’s Newest Flop: Demonizing Mental Illness

Hearing there was a new M. Night Shyamalan movie coming out starring James McAvoy, I was cautiously optimistic.

Depending on which critic you ask, Shyamalan hasn’t released a good movie since either SignsUnbreakable or The Sixth Sense. Me? I love the twist endings and am always waiting for the next Sixth Sense. When James McAvoy, one of my favorite actors since he appeared in Wanted, signed on to play the bad guy, I didn’t see how it could lose. The optimism faded once I watched the trailer because there is nothing good about the premise of Split. Not even bothering to skirt around problematic stereotypes, the trailer plainly shows that this story demonizes mental illness.

Set to premiere January 20th, 2017, the film positions dissociative identity disorder (DID) to be dangerous.

Dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder, is a relatively rare and widely misunderstood psychiatric condition. It’s a controversial diagnosis due to its frequent comorbidity with multiple other mental disorders. Trauma is believed to be the spark that causes dissociation. A person with DID may have developed this “splitting” of personalities, manifested as alters, as a way to compartmentalize traumatic experiences. It’s self-preservation. Temporary bouts of amnesia are reported when someone switches between alters. Due to the rarity of the disorder and the diversity of cases, this is only a rough summary of an extremely complex mental disorder.

Hollywood has a history of using mental illness as a way to make characters seem dangerous, out of control or hopeless. Arkham Asylum comes to mind as an example of this stereotype. Part of the DC world of superheroes, Batman’s adversaries are often humans that have “gone mad.” He sends them to Arkham Asylum because they’re dangerous and “crazy.” The most empathy displayed for institutionalized psychiatric patients in Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman is when Batman says, “We have hospitals to treat the mentally ill with compassion, that’s not where you’re going.”

It appears that in Split, DID is akin to an evil superpower, a ripple effect making one person into an entirely different human being with each alter switch. In the trailer, a psychiatrist says McAvoy’s character can “change his body chemistry with his thoughts.” Vanity Fair described James McAvoy’s character, Kevin, as “a creepy kidnapper…a villain with 23 split personalities.” The movie seems to be inspired by Psycho, an Alfred Hitchcock film, in which a serial killer develops dissociative identity disorder after murdering his mother and her boyfriend. He is institutionalized and then released, after which his alters continue to murder people. Fifty-six years after Psycho and they haven’t come up with a more creative evil character than homicidal maniac escapes from a psychiatric hospital.

The really scary thing about movies like Split and Psycho is how they affect public perceptions of mental illness. The number of news reports using mental illness as the explanation for violent behavior is on the rise. The reality is that the rates of violent crime between people with mental illness and those without are exactly the same. In the majority of gun violence, mental illness is not a factor. A lot of research has been done to try and find a link, and it hasn’t been found.

Out of all the gun violence in the United States, only about three to five percent may have been prevented with effective mental illness treatment. The head researcher of that project, Dr. Beth McGinty, says, “Anyone who kills people is not mentally healthy. We can all agree on that. But …they may have anger or emotional issues, which can be clinically separate from a diagnosis of mental illness.” A recent investigation published in the British Journal of Psychiatry concluded that individuals with severe mental illness are anywhere from four to ten times more likely to be the victims of violent crime. Study after study has found the same pattern.

The main reason individuals with mental illness don’t seek help is because of shame, stigma and discrimination. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 66 percent of people with diagnosable mental disorders do not seek help. Thanks to a lack of laws relating to mental health discrimination, depending on where you live, a potential landlord or employer can discriminate against someone who discloses a mental illness.

Only recently has mental illness begun to be portrayed on the big screen in a realistic way, with movies like Inside Out, Melancholia and Silver Linings Playbook. Even when depicted with more nuance, a lack of insight into treatments and the reality of long-term care means movies risk romanticizing or even fetishizing mental illness. The public has begun to accept that mental health is an important part to overall wellbeing, which does in part reduce stigma towards the idea of mental disorders.

Stigma towards “mental illness” might be shifting in the public consciousness, but it seems to be shifting towards stigma of individual disorders. A study of school children found they felt a need to keep a greater social distance from people with schizophrenia, psychosis or depression when co-occurring with substance abuse. Another study found that 42 percent of people would stop being friends with a person diagnosed with mental illness, 55 percent wouldn’t marry someone with mental illness, and 25 percent are afraid of being in the vicinity of someone with a mental illness. The numbers are shocking and illustrate how real discrimination is. The same study found that around 60 percent of respondents would not utilize the services of a mentally ill childcare worker, financial advisor, lawyer or a doctor.

These misconceptions become more solidified with every irresponsible film like Split. The “psycho” trope is tired and needs to be put to rest. Every year our understanding of mental health grows and treatments become more effective. Yet, Hollywood is reluctant to move away from the horror movie “crazy people are scary” stereotype. Movies that turn mental illness into a caricature only serve to set back progress.

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