Art is the disease, and art is the cure

Art is the disease, and art is the cure

Elijah Brumback

In film and literature, mental illness is often objectified and produced as grim, dangerous or profound. The images and words capture a scene in which those afflicted come into extreme suffering, perhaps a breakthrough, then reassimilation into the society often responsible for their misfortune.

When a film or book takes on the role of trying to examine or explain mental illness, the words “I wanted it to feel real” are some of the first to come tumbling out of the proud director’s or acclaimed writer’s mouths, but what does the phrase actually mean? Of course it could mean simply that the creator just wanted it to be realistic, but that begs the question, if the subject matter was so concerning, why not explore it and document it in reality? Why dress it up theatrically?

It’s generally understood that movies and many popular novels are leveraged for their entertainment value. So when the media takes to a social issue such as mental illness, the most identifiable upshot is the large number of people it will reach. Even if the contact is only slightly peripheral, the presence of the issue is omnipresent. However indirectly beneficial it seems, awareness is heightened, the internet buzzes, people begin Googling schizophrenia, PTSD, megalomania, depression and the like, and for a moment while a book hangs on a bestseller list or movie is in theaters, people are exposed.

In the past several films have been touted as beautiful and geniune portrayals of the struggle against mental illness. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Beautiful Mind, even Forrest Gump have had their share of scrutiny and praises, and though the subjects are serious and the meaning thoughtful, how are they described in passing?

“What’s that movie where Jack Nicholson plays that crazy guy?” and “Remember that movie where Russell Crowe goes insane from being a genius?” This how these films are remembered and talked about. Is it helpful? Does it benefit the condition displayed and acted?

It would seem that today the terms mental illness and crazy person have become synonymous. It’s simple to describe something or someone you don’t know as crazy, but what has labeling someone or something as crazy done to help understand it.

As art in the broad sense of the word goes, movies and other media dominate the social and cultural realm, especially here in the United States. In the media industry, it is said that content is determined by what the public demands. If that truly is the case, then it would appear that the public demands violence, gratuitous nudity, explosions, luxury, people calling each other retards, and the occasional peppering of exotic foreign cultures.

While this may be a rather bleak look at the entertainment landscape, it is not too far off in scope and where the industry seems headed as a generalization.

On a more promising note, some media genres, such as comic books or graphic novels, have found a place, which allows them to tell stories of mental illness and other human plights in a new way, a way that doesn’t objectify or victimize, but relays the complexity of struggling with something beyond personal control.

In a new book entitled “Psychiatric Tales,” first-time author Darryl Cunningham enlists the graphic format to boldly and starkly give insight into the world of mental illness. Drawing on his years spent as a health care assistant at an acute psychiatric ward in England, as well as his own experience with acute depression, Cunningham has crafted a brutal and powerful look at mental illness with an aim at “stigma-busting”.

“This is needed because fear and ignorance of mental illness remains widespread in society,” Cunningham told NPR. “We don’t tolerate sexism or racism these days, but people with mental health problems are still fair game,” he said.

A promising turn in the media industry, Cunningham’s novel is a step in the right direction for what should be expected in the earnest representation of a subject that perpetually affects so many lives. What Cunningham’s book isn’t, is a half-hearted attempt at trying to make something “feel real”. Hollywood might take note.

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