“The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of.”
From Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
I love few things better than losing myself in a book or film, I always have done. As well as the beautiful escapism, which has provided me with temporary respite from anxiety and depression on so many occasions, I have learned a great deal about myself by empathising with the characters I have encountered on page and screen. As they do for so many millions of people across the world every single day, the people I have met and got to know this way have provided me with welcome companionship and a continuing education.
Lately, and rightly, the way that race and gender are depicted and represented in popular culture is under the spotlight. I am loving watching the real world begin to be represented at last, and I am especially enjoying watching the evolution of British Vogue under the Editorship of Edward Enninful. With each issue it’s as though a lense that used to focus only on a tiny, tiny segment of society has started to move at the behest of the person holding the camera it is part of, and pan across the wider world.
I wanted to write a little about the way that mental illness is depicted on screen, because representations can be so harmful or helpful to those affected and perpetuate stigma and lack of understanding, or the opposite, in the wider community.
Films had taken over from books for me by the time my symptoms started to manifest, and I vividly remember watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s some time in my mid teens. When the protagonist described the mean reds, which to me are the way she imagines her anxiety, I was helped somehow. More recently the film Silver Linings Playbook, which depicts Bipolar Disorder very vividly and ultimately positively, helped me to diagnose myself. It’s not surprising that the writer and director David O’Russell has lived experience of the illness through his son. His knowledge and empathy shine through. The way that Clare Danes plays Carrie, the brilliant but troubled CIA agent who regularly saves the world while almost losing her life in Homeland, has been difficult to watch at times, but is mostly true to my own experience of Bipolar Disorder (apart from her ability to function with jet lag and hardly any sleep), and I have read that an expert was involved right from the start in helping Danes create her character. A recent storyline in the TV show Cold Feet about depression was beautifully and realistically handled. I was pleasantly surprised too that in ‘Enlightened’, a show I downloaded without being entirely sure I wanted to watch it, the diagnosis of the main character, sensitively depicted by Laura Dern, was never actually mentioned by name.
These recent, in depth productions where people with mental illness are placed front and centre have left me feeling largely hopeful. It’s also possible to know before you watch something with a central character who is suffering that you must be prepared for that, because the blurb will give you a basic overview. Sometimes I am in the mood to watch that sort of thing, sometimes not. It’s the examples where mental illness are included as throwaway lines in productions that otherwise have nothing to do with the subject that I have an issue with, and I want to talk a little about that here.
I have been caught off guard and found myself feeling disappointed, hurt and even a little violated on three occasions in the last few years. Watching an episode of Girls, regarded as progressive in so many ways, when a character gets a job because her predecessor is “Bipolar and we’re going to fire her the minute she enters her next manic up swing.” That was scripted for laughs, and I have a sense of humour, but to me it also said “You’re unemployable because of your condition, and that’s as it should be.” Watching my niece, then only about five years old, rehearse for a performance of a Shrek song which included the lyric “Though I seem a bit bipolar” left me wondering (as if I wasn’t wondering enough already) how I would one day explain my condition to her, and whether the negativity in that line would influence the way that she and the adults watching would interpret it all. The one I found the toughest was the last Nancy Myer’s film, The Intern. I, like so many others, go to Myer’s films when I need the cinematic equivalent of a big, warm, beautiful looking comfort blanket within which to cocoon myself from the world. When the film was released in 2015 I was still figuring my diagnosis out, and I had dowloaded it to watch while I licked my wounds on a pretty grey day. When the protagonist’s husband tells her and their young daughter that he thinks the daughter’s friend may be bipolar, and they all pull faces that say “Oh my God, avoid her at all costs” I cringed and probably cried. Later, the child brings it up again at the school gate and the protagonist acts as though she has just accused her friend of a crime. I felt let down, and worse about myself than I had before I started watching.
I understand that these are tiny parts of big projects, and that they probably go over most people’s heads, but then why include them at all, when they are cruel and insulting to a huge percentage of the population, and when they only serve to perpetuate a dangerous stigma that already exists. If you’re going to include lines about mental illness, I say do it kindly and seek to be better informed first, because as well as a chance not to hurt someone, you have an opportunity to educate too.
A psychologist I follow on Instagram, Dr Alfiee, posted a video last week about the very public symptoms of Bipolar Disorder that Kanye West has experienced recently. I found myself watching and wishing that her video had been posted alongside the ones of him on every news site everywhere. There is so much beauty inside the mind of a person with mental illness, and until the people behind the lenses that so many people absorb information through start to understand and make that clear, their potential power to educate and heal is, in my mind, being not only wasted, but accidentally abused.