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Celluloid mind-set

The portrayal of mental illness in the media does little to promote understanding, writes Jerome Monahan. Now a film project aims to undo some of the damage.

It all began with Ned Flanders, Homer Simpson's irritatingly tolerant neighbour, who was shown to crack up in the face of cosmic injustice. Of all the homes in Springfield, his had been the only one to be destroyed by an act of God (a hurricane). When an attempt to rebuild his house, overseen by Homer, ended in predictable disaster, the forces of repression restraining Ned vanished. His "hididdly-dos" became sneers and, after years of turning the other cheek, finally his resentment boiled over and he engaged in a series of deliciously accurate character assassinations. This latter-day Job then did the only decent thing - he took himself off to the town's mental institution. When asked at the reception, he opts to be dragged kicking and screaming to his cell.

This snippet was the first in a series of extracts on show in a special education event held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in the summer. The event was the prelude to Reel Madness, a season of films and documentaries organised by the charity Rethink, featuring aspects of mental illness on film. Event co-ordinator James Wade said: "It was an experiment - a first look at how we might use film as a means of reaching out to young people to talk about mental health."

The need to do so is prompted by research that indicates high levels of emotional distress among teenagers and the Government's undertaking that some form of early mental health intervention work with all young people will have occurred by 2004. At the very least, the film event showed how far things must move forward before teachers can use these resources in the classroom - not least because some of the clips came from fairly obscure sources. Far more important, though, is the point made by Vanessa Pinfold of the Health Services Research Department, which recently published a report about good practice in the teaching of mental health in a group of schools in Kent.

She said: "What is important is that teachers do not embark on this topic before ensuring there are systems in place to support the kinds of issues it can raise - and not only among the students. There are plenty of vulnerable teachers for whom a class discussion of mental health could be very threatening."

The research found that best practice should involve students coming into contact with "real service users", whose experience offers proof that severe mental illness is far from a life sentence. Students could also ask them about their conditions and gain important insights to offset against misrepresentations of mental health issues in the media.

"There is always the possibility that such work will provoke powerful emotions in young people," Ms Pinfold said. "So it is important that there are robust whole-school policies in place to cope. It is also essential not to build a demand for services such as counselling which cannot be met."

Even so, there is clearly essential work to be done to combat the stigma which attaches so quickly in our society to anyone considered to be in psychological difficulty. In July, the Department of Health published details of public attitudes in its three-yearly survey, which revealed that the public is becoming more fearful and intolerant of those with mental illness. It is a trend that is exacerbated in part by the sensationalist reports of a handful of homicides involving mentally disturbed people, and by ministerial rhetoric in debates concerning the planned reform of the Mental Health Act.

Film representations of people with mental illness do little to help.

Rethink recently condemned a Jim Carrey movie - Me, Myself and Irene - not only for misleading content but also for marketing tactics, including the distribution of jelly babies in the form of pills "to cure schizophrenia."

Peter Byrne, a consultant psychiatrist who regularly writes about film in psychiatric journals, said the film was particularly dangerous as its main target audience was 15 to 24-year-olds, the age group at greatest risk of mental health problems. Surprisingly, Byrne admires the depiction of psychiatry in The Simpsons. He cites an episode in which shock therapy proves to be entirely useless in curbing the family's conflicts and results in a complete power failure across Springfield. "It is a healthy and hilarious indictment of our profession," Byrne says. This comic portrayal notwithstanding, his comments underline the widespread ignorance in this area, and show that there is still much to be done before film can be more effectively used to promote tolerance in mental health issues.

I spent years teaching Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho without realising that no condition of "split personality" such as that affecting Norman Bates really exists, so I am well aware of the profound gaps in my own knowledge on this subject. Even for the well-meaning, tackling stereotypical depictions of mental illness is likely to be problematic.

That is, of course, not an excuse to avoid the subject so much as a plea for proper training and well-designed resources.

The British Film Institute is planning a video compilation to support the teaching of representations of disability on television and in films.

Disabling Images (the working title) is contains the video diaries of at least one mental health service user.


Influential films

* One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1973)

* Completely Cuckoo - a documentary about the making of the film and the way the inmates benefited from participating in the project.

* Some Voices (2000)

* Titicut Follies (1967), a banned documentary examining the life of patients at the Bridgewater Institution for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts.

* Let There be Light (1946), by director John Huston, another banned documentary that examines the effects of shell-shock.


* How we Can Make Mental Health Education Work - a report on the work of a pilot study in Kent schools (Rethink)

* Hit the Headlines - a resource pack by Mental Health Media

* Portrayals Of Suicide: a Media Guide - a study by The Samaritans Other useful contacts Rethink, an organisation concerned with issues surrounding severe mental illness Mental Health FoundationBright Futures

Mind, Body and Soul, the Government's health website

Mind, the mental health charity The Samaritans

Tel helpline: 08457 90 90 90

Young Minds, an organisation that focuses on improving the mental health of chidren and young people

Mental health issues are featured in the December issue of TESExtra for Special Needs, the new monthly newsletter from The TES. To subscribe, Jtel: 0870 444 8627

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