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Negative Portrayals of Mental Illness and Mental Health Care in Tv and Film

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Nurul Nabila

English 1101.01

April 27th, 2016

Ms. Heather Frazier

Negative Portrayals of Mental Illness and Mental Health Care in TV and Film

        In a snippet of American Horror Story: Asylum (2012) entitled Judy’s Therapy started with the patients of the asylum standing outside of their confinement. The asylum patients are seen to be dressed up as if they were never taken care of and even some of them look like they were born with physical disabilities. The sister in charge of the Asylum, Sister Mary Eunice, walked down the corridor of the cells and she is seen to be in shape and dressed neatly. She then asks if anyone has a “bone” to pick with her in a sarcastic tone. Judy Martin, one of the patients of the asylum answers to her question. Sister Mary Eunice somehow is not surprised that Judy has a problem with her and she gave a mean smirk while walking into Judy’s cell. Sister Mary Eunice then ask Judy about how she got the cucumber in her room and started to assume things before Judy even answered her question and as a result of Judy trying to play along with the Sister’s accusation, she was then brought to the operating room and was forced onto the bed by two male nurses to take an Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In the operating room, Judy struggled to get away and cried out on how unnecessary of the therapy. Doctor Arden explained Judy’s medical condition and ignored how Judy was struggling. Moreover, Sister Mary Eunice volunteered to conduct the shock therapy and Dr. Arden spectate it mercilessly. The clip ended by focusing Judy’s condition and what she sees from her eyes and lights flickering. Along with the interval of focusing on Dr. Arden’s face and Sister Mary Eunice’s with her mean smirk. Additionally, throughout the snippet, the lighting of the scene was dark and gloomy. Throughout this scene and the whole season of American Horror Story: Asylum is seen as an abuse of power by the higher authority of the asylum, but it actually shows the negative portrayal of mental illness and mental healthcare environment in TV and film. These negative portrayals are shown in this series through the appearances of the characters, location setting and also the psychiatric treatment (punishment) given to the patients of the asylum which are totally opposite of what they actually are in real life. These portrayals are used widely in TV and Films of the 20th and 21st century in order to exclusively address to a society where mental health is a taboo.

        In Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, portrayals of mental illness are often related to spiritual and religion. Most of the society in both of these countries claimed that what causes a person with mental illness for instance, severe depression and schizophrenia, is because their lives are intertwined with evil supernatural entities like demons and it has nothing to do with the working mind. According to the Malaysian Psychiatric Association, most Malaysians believe that depression; a never ending sadness is just a phase that one will get over soon (par., 9, 2010).  Obviously from this claim we know that talking about mental health is a taboo subject. Even though it is a taboo subject, it does not stop film directors and producers to adapt this concept of connection between mental illness and supernatural entities in Asian movies and films. However, it does not stop within that region as according to Goodwin, most Hollywood horror movies and thriller movies that display asylums or any mental health care institution and also mental health starts with a person being schizophrenic and later finds out that he/she in fact is actually a supernatural entity in disguise, in other words, possessed (229). Just like what was shown in American Horror Story: Asylum, the patients that were admitted into the asylum was said to be manipulated by the devil as stated by the previous Monsignor in charge, Monsignor Timothy, in one of the episodes. Therefore, portraying the stigmatized mental healthcare environment (asylums, therapies, etc.) and mental illness in TV series and films is a method of widening the audience because there are still people out there that believe that the whole mental health issue is just exactly how what is shown. The motive behind this stereotypical theme is to let the audience familiarize the characters and its characteristic and know in depth of its basic idea of a story. For example, in the clip I analyzed, Sister Mary Eunice performs electroshock therapy on Judy Martin instead of Dr. Arden and it made the therapy look like some sort of exorcism happening. This justifies how portrayals of supernatural entities and mental illness connects and audience familiarize within it.

        Returning to AHS, just like in the beginning of the scene of the clip I analyzed, the patients are always seen to be in an unfit condition – untidy, dirty and a mess. Not only the patients seemed like they are never taken care of, the conditions of the buildings too look like it has never been maintained. According to a study by Goodwin, these conditions of poorly maintained for both patients and the asylum building that always shown on TV and film is because to preserve the supernatural elements (229). It gives the patients and the location setting a creepy and tense look. Traditionally, people believed that a mentally ill person is a “modern incarnation” of the devil (possessed) and the devil is always described as a creepy looking creature. By portraying abnormal physicals and messy appearance on patients creates a disturbing image that connects to how the devil has always been described as. Also, this fear-provoking template of location setting is to uphold the stigmatized view of mental healthcare environment. Other than that, in this series, the Sister in charge of the asylum is in fact a devil in disguise. This can also be associated with the fact how mental illness is stigmatized with supernatural elements.

        Furthermore, some of the patients in this TV series about a fictional asylum are seen as violent. Why is violence always associated with mental illness? This is because in a past study by Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry on associated violence with mentally ill person has made people believe that mentally ill person would be expected to act violently around public (qtd, Tartakovsky 1). However, according to Elbogen and Johnson, people with mental illness are the ones who are violently attacked in and out of the asylum and that mental illness alone is not a factor to the act of violence (qtd Tartakovsky 1). From AHS: Asylum, it is always shown that the patients in the asylum attacking the workers and in rampage. For example, when Judy Martin struggled on the bed before her shock therapy, it showed her in rage. However, if we analyze closely, Judy was the one who was actually attacked and her actions was a way to defend herself. This is a clear point of how American Horror Story: Asylum negatively portrays about mental health patients – violence. Since there are still people have this state of mind about mental health, the more media stigmatize about it, the more it expands.



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