UCL News


Mindful media

12 January 2005

Movie characters such as Freddy in Nightmare on Elm Street, Norman Bates in Psycho and Jason in Friday the Thirteenth suggest that people with mental illness are violent, evil and out of control.

Dr Peter Byrne This is the view of Dr Peter Byrne, psychiatrist and Senior Lecturer at UCL's Department of Mental Health Sciences.

Building on his experience as a lecturer in film studies at University College Dublin, Dr Byrne translated his passion for cinema to the world of psychiatry, where he examines the stigma of mental illness. Despite today's greater understanding of psychiatric illnesses, the stigma that is attached to conditions such as depression, eating disorders and schizophrenia remains. The consequences of stigma are profound, affecting the individual on an emotional and social level, often resulting in feelings of shame, low self-esteem, social exclusion, prejudice and discrimination.

One study found that of 487 people questioned who had a family member with severe mental illness, 85.6% identified popular movies about mentally ill killers as the largest single contributor to the stigma of that illness. Dr Byrne said: "These movies reinforce the public perception of strong links between mental illness and violence. There is only a slightly increased risk of violence in people with mental illness and this is much lower than violence caused by misuse of alcohol and drugs. Many films are sources of misinformation about mental illness, causing distress to the relatives of the mentally ill." Dr Byrne's forthcoming study will examine the attitudes of professionals to electroconvulsive therapy with reference to the classic movie, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Take Alfred Hitchcock's classic movie Psycho, as an example. The use of the word 'psycho' as the film's title confirms a stereotype of mentally ill people as violent and uncontrollable, leading to "the homogenisation of mental illness, making these stereotypes difficult to challenge", said Dr Byrne. As the archetypal outsider, Norman Bates is the powerful, evil psycho killer, whose mental fragility causes a loss of control resulting in violence and death. The movie not only established the word 'psycho' as common parlance for someone with severe mental illness, but also led to the creation of a new film genre, the psycho movie. Dr Byrne argues that the "presentation of mental illness as loss of control evokes images of possession reminiscent of the witch trials of the Middle Ages."

Dr Byrne believes that the key to addressing the stigma of mental illness is to challenge the misconceptions generated by the media. The reason for his concern about these misconceptions is simple: "For people with no direct experience of psychiatric illness, the media are the source for language, concepts and images of psychiatry." He makes regular radio appearances to discuss films that depict mental illness, including the recent box office successes 'Iris', 'A Beautiful Mind' and 'I am Sam' and he believes that only by challenging cinematic representations of mental illness can the stigma associated with it be diminished.

This summer, Dr Byrne is acting as programmer of the annual conference of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which will take a fascinating look at the relationship between psychiatry and the media. Taking place in Edinburgh in June 2005, the conference will look at this relationship from three different points of view. The subject of war reporting and the trauma experienced by journalists who have encountered enduring images of suffering and death during their career, will be discussed by Mr Mark Brayne, a former BBC tv reporter and founder of the Dart centre. The Dart centre is a network of journalists and psychiatrists dedicated to understanding the nature of trauma, conflict and tragedy encountered by journalists during their career.

Psychiatrist Dr Dinesh Bhugra will discuss his study of Bollywood movies and their portrayal of mental illness. This topic was chosen because of the success of Bollywood movies internationally, as well as the high proportion of Royal College of Psychiatry members who are Asian. Cinemania, an insightful documentary which takes a look at the lives of five film 'addicts', will also be shown. It depicts the inner life of film 'addicts', people who are obsessed with cinema, often trying to watch up to six films per day. "I thought it is an interesting film to show to mental health professionals because some films show mental states in a non-judgemental way. In the documentary, the medium of film itself is the object of obsession but instead of letting the audience laugh at their expense, participants worked with the filmmakers to explain what is going on for them."

To find out more about the Dart Centre and The Royal College of Psychiatrists use the links below.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists
The Dart Centre