(July 30, 2012) Stigma and its causes are a constant concern for all of us who live and work with severe mental illness, which is what makes Dr. Patricia R. Owen’s study of schizophrenia in the movies so interesting.
Published in the July issue of Psychiatric Services, “Portrayals of schizophrenia by entertainment media: A content analysis of contemporary movies” reviewed English-language commercial movies featuring at least one character with schizophrenia and released to theaters between 1990 and 2000.
A total of 42 characters from 41 movies were identified and analyzed, after which Owen concluded. “Misinformation and negative portrayals … are common.”
Among the findings:
- Characters with schizophrenia were overwhelmingly male and Caucasian, even though males have only a slightly higher incidence rate of the disease than females, and African Americans have significantly higher rates than Caucasians.
- A vast majority of the characters were dangerous or violent (83%) – far more than the small percentage of those with schizophrenia who actually commit violent acts – and nearly one-third were homicidal; the “homicidal maniac” stereotype was found to be “prevalent.”
- A substantial majority were self-harming (69%), and 24% committed suicide, even though suicide rates among individuals with schizophrenia are estimated to range from 10-16%.
- The “myth that love can cure schizophrenia” was found in nearly one-quarter of the movies that were studied (24%); over half showed the use of medications as a treatment.
- A majority of characters displayed positive symptoms, even though they are less common than negative symptoms. Bizarre delusions (67%), auditory hallucinations (62%), visual hallucinations (52%) and disorganized thought or speech (21%) were all depicted, while the most commonly shown negative symptom (flat affect) appeared in only eight characters (19%).
- Some characters were depicted having “unusual experiences with otherworldly phenomena … (which) may represent a newly identified stereotype in contemporary movies – 'schizophrenia as possessed.'”
“To those who struggle with severe mental illness, the pejorative stereotypes found in movies about schizophrenia have detrimental consequences,” the author concluded. “(C)learly there is a need to provide accurate information about mental illness to counter the negative messages found in mass media.”
The complete article is available only to subscribers or for a fee; an abstract may be found here.