Despite a heightened level of mental health awareness, stigmatisation remains widespread. Mental health stigma means that people are judged in a negative way because of their experience with mental ill-health. Misrepresentation in movies like Joker (2019) and scapegoating by politicians only add fuel to prejudices. Persons with lived experience of mental ill health are the ones who suffer as a result.
It is high time to bust myths and protect their rights.
Joker: false portrayal of mental ill health and violence
False cinematic portrayals of mental ill health reinforce unfounded stereotypes and misinformation. The narrative in the movie Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, suggests that a deterioration in mental health directly leads to violence against others. This is not only factually untrue but contributes to further stigmatisation.
“The movie is very much a commentary on how society doesn’t do enough to nurture people who experience mental illness,” wrote Jason Guerrasio in his review for the Business Insider. On the other hand, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance gives us plenty of reasons to dislike and distrust the protagonist Arthur Fleck. He explicitly names his mental health problems as a reason for his violent behaviour. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” Joker asks, before shooting a talk show host.
Contrary to the film’s depiction, numerous studies have shown that people with severe mental health problems are more vulnerable to violence from others than becoming violent themselves. According to one study, they are twice as likely to be victims of homicide than are others in the general population. Symptoms associated with severe mental ill health, such as impaired reality testing, poor problem-solving and impulsivity, can compromise a person’s ability to perceive risks and protect themselves.
Despite extensive academic evidence, the myth persists that people with mental health problems are violent towards others. Not only does Joker (2019) feed into that stereotype, it also plays into the hands of pro-gun lawmakers and the National Rifle Association (NRA), who often use mental ill health as an argument in the debate around gun violence.
Mental ill health as a scapegoat for gun violence
In the wake of two mass shootings in Texas and Ohio in 2019, Donald Trump used mental ill health to distract from the real issues underlying the gun violence crisis in the US. “I do want people to remember the words ‘mental illness’. These people are mentally ill […] we have to open up institutions – we can’t let these people be on the streets,” Trump said. “Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger – not the gun.”
However, research shows his statement is completely false. Less than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings committed in the US between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental health problems. Moreover, only 1% of persons discharged from psychiatric hospitals become violent towards strangers using a gun, according to a recent study. “Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatising,” warned Rosie Phillips Davis, president of the American Psychological Association (APA).
Additionally, a research paper published in the journal Preventive Medicine in 2019, examined a possible correlation between mental health and gun violence for 663 young adults in Texas. “The link between mental illness and gun violence is not there,” lead study author Yu Lu said. But a different factor was found to be linked with gun violence: access to guns.
When “mental ill health” is vaguely thrown into gun debates, people affected by it may avoid seeking treatment according to Arash Javanbakht, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Wayne State University. “I have often had patients who were worried that their diagnosis of depression or anxiety, although well-treated, might be used against them in court regarding child custody. I have repeatedly had to explain to them that their disorder does not provide grounds for justification of impaired judgment,” he said.
The fear of being stigmatised prevents people suffering from mental ill health from reaching out for support. It stopped British reality TV star Caroline Flack (40) from getting help, ultimately leading to her suicide in February 2020.
Flack’s suicide casts spotlight on stigma around mental health
The former “Love Island” presenter took her own life after she was hounded by tabloid media over her boyfriend’s assault charge against her. Although he did not support the prosecution, she was due to stand trial in a few weeks’ time.
Flack had been an outspoken advocate for mental health. In an interview she revealed: “People see the celebrity lifestyle and assume everything is perfect, but we’re just like everyone else. Everyone is battling something emotional behind closed doors — that’s life. Fame doesn’t make you happy.”
In the past, Flack had talked about her problems with depression. In an Instagram post, she wrote in October 2019:
Stigmatisation is one of the biggest barriers against seeking help for mental ill health. Still considered a “taboo” topic, it prevents many from getting the support they so desperately need. But in fact, mental ill health is more common than we think: 1 in 6 Europeans have experienced mental ill health throughout their lifetime.
We all have mental health. It is equally important as our physical health. Demonisation in the media and by politicians — as well as dramatisation in movies — contribute to misperceptions by many. As a society, we have a moral obligation to protect the dignity of people with mental ill health.