An Examination of the Concepts of Mental Illnesses in Literature and Film

It always surprises me how societal ideas and norms seem to remain the same, even after periods of rapid change. Over the course of my research, I have noticed that the concepts of mental illnesses in literature and film have remained the same, regardless of advances in psychological findings. Throughout my essays, I have explored the nature of mental illness stigmas in literature and film. I wanted to understand the effects these portrayals have, especially when the portrayals are in works that are widely read or watched.

To start tackling this huge idea, I started with a strict look at literature, figuring that this would lead me to a more profound understanding of the situation. Now that I have put my examples in chronological order, it will be easier to see the way these false concepts and generalizations of mental illnesses have been carried through time.

To start to look at the idea of the stigma in society, I originally chose four works that paint mental illnesses in a negative light.

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Though all involve mental illnesses in some way, two of them are directly narrated by a person with a mental illness, which intensifies the reader’s image of that character. These works are Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Slaughterer,” Edgar Allen Poe’s “Berenice,” and Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus.” The earliest example I have of the portrayal of mental illness lies in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which was written sometime between 1599 and 1601. Though Hamlet can surely be categorized as depressed, I would like to focus on Ophelia.

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Her insanity is a method of dealing with the unfortunate circumstances she has found herself in.

Before she goes “mad,” she finds out that her love, Hamlet, murdered her father. Since she had always done exactly what her father had always told her, Ophelia no longer has anyone to direct her life, and she gives in to madness. This supposed mental illness comes to Ophelia in Act IV of the play when she comes onto the scene speaking gibberish. After this incident, Hamlet states: “Poor Ophelia, divided from herself and her fair judgment, without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts (qtd. Shakespeare).” Because the word “pictures” takes the very life out of a person and their actions, Hamlet diminishes the value of Ophelia and generalizes that view to all people with mental illnesses because he uses the word “we.” This depiction suggests that any person would become feral if he or she were separated from their mental capacities. There is irony in Hamlet’s interpretation of mental illnesses, as Hamlet’s description most definitely includes him. He does not have his rationality about him, especially in his anger and desire for revenge (Shakespeare).

This interpretation of mental illnesses creates a negative image, slights the afflicted people of value, and is wildly and falsely generalized to incorporate all people who are bereft of some sort of mental functionality. The portrayal of mental illnesses in Hamlet is damaging and creates an incorrect idea of what mental instability is and how such people may act. Edgar Allen Poe’s “Berenice,” first published in 1835, portrays a different type of illness by using the narrator, Egaeus, who is plagued by “monomania,” a term used in the 1800s to describe a person who obsesses over one object at a time. Because all of Egaeus’ actions and qualities are attempts to portray his mental illness, almost everything in this story could be generalized in a way that is not necessarily true for other people.

To give a few examples of this, Egaeus gives excessive detail to any kind of image of darkness, whether it is in the form of a shadow, the absence of light, the color gray, or a disease. He is darkly fascinated by Berenice only after she contracts her mysterious and fatal disease and ignores the way she used to be “agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy (qtd. Poe),” almost as if he can only appreciate the beauty of something if it is surrounded by some sort of darkness (Poe). This description of Egaeus’unstable mental state turns violent once he fixates on Berenice’s teeth and cannot stop himself from murdering her in order to gain possession of them (Poe). This extreme and fictional portrayal of a mental illness can easily stick in the mind and could promote an irrational fear of people with symptoms of instability, reinforcing the idea that “insane” people are dangerous, when the opposite is most often true.

Because I am speaking of the history of the portrayal of mental illness, it is important to note the historical context of the following works. The rest of the examples in my essay came after the birth of psychology. Though Wilhelm Wundt and William James are often considered the “fathers of psychology,” there is a name that everyone seems to know better: Sigmund Freud. His ideas on the conscious and unconscious mind really sparked the interest in the functions of the brain, which has continued well beyond Freud’s lifetime. After Freud’s controversial theories came about, people entered into the field of psychology, and a general curiosity about the mind infiltrated the daily life of the average person. This curiosity can be seen in the amount of literature, and later film, that embraced the topics surrounding mental illness during and after Freud’s time (Boeree). Though the information about psychology began to be found in more places, the information was not necessarily correct.

The first of my examples from the “post-Freud” time period, “The Slaughterer,” by Issac Bashevis Singer (written in the 1950s), continues the stigmatizing ideas that were present in the previous time period by showing how a mental unstable person is treated. The main character, Yoineh, is ostracized after his mental collapse. When he is appointed to the position of slaughter and is repulsed by the work, Yoineh “opened a door to his brain, and madness flowed in, flooding everything (qtd. Singer 215).” His collapse is portrayed as a loss of emotional control that comes suddenly. Though Yoineh had been idolized for his piety by the townspeople throughout the short story, the villagers immediately change their opinions of him when he starts acting strangely and feel that it is okay to ridicule him. They do not question the reasons why Yoineh has suddenly changed his demeanor and treat him like an animal as they chase him with dung, sticks, and rope.

After Yoineh drowns himself in a nearby river, the townspeople immediately look for a new slaughterer, never stopping to consider whether the position drove Yoineh to his madness in the first place (Singer). The townspeople’s disregard for the well being of Yoineh and future slaughterers demonstrates a societal tendency. This tendency seems to make people feel justified in putting people with mental illnesses beneath them in value, which is similar to the way it happened in Hamlet. Another example of mental illnesses in literature can be found in Slyvia Plath’s poem, “Lady Lazarus,” published in 1962, which is renowned for its confessional nature. Plath, who was known to be depressed, admitted to her three suicide attempts, one, supposedly, when she was a young after her father died, another by swallowing sleeping pills during college, and the last, fatal one by cooking gas (Gibson). This information is reflected in Plath’s poem, which was written less than a year before her death.

An example of this is seen in lines 20 22: “I am only thirty./ And like the cat I have nine times to die./ This is Number Three (qtd. Kennedy 635). In addition, Plath’s poem glorifies death when it is stated that “Dying/ Is an art (qtd. Kennedy 636).” The poem seems to point to the idea that death is the only worthy option in life and is something to master. The undeniable similarities to her real life and the intimate treatment of the subject of death contribute to society’s view of Plath as a deranged, helpless poet who went “mad,” and those ideas seem to be carried into the generalizations made about mental illnesses. Because a person may mistakenly believe that this is a completely truthful and unexaggerated look into the life of someone with a mental illness, this poem itself is inadvertently adding to the mental illness stigma. After looking through these examples, I wanted to continue to find examples of the portrayals of mental illnesses in literature, but I also wanted to get a more up to date idea of how the public views mental instability and how these works were viewed at the time of their publication. It was also important to explore whether or not these works were accurate. Therefore, I turned my attention to the last thirty years, incorporated film as an object of my analysis, and talked about the accuracy of the portrayals.

In this series of examples, I used the confessional poem, “Wanting to Die,” by Anne Sexton; the memoir, Hurry Down Sunshine, by Michael Greenberg; and the film, The Ward, directed by John Carpenter. In the poem, “Wanting to Die,” which was published in 1981, Sexton explicitly explains the nature of her suicidal thoughts. The simile, “But suicides have a special language. /Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build,” compares suicidal people to carpenters in the way that both do not ask why they do what they do, but only how to do it (qtd. Sexton). As if to reinforce this idea, Sexton does not address the reasons why she wants to die and only describes its effects on her. Suicide, according to her poem, is “a drug too sweet,” “a passion,” and “an infection” inside her (qtd. Sexton). As Sexton was known for her suicidal tendencies—she did, after all, take her own life—we, as readers, can assume that much of her claims in her poetry, and specifically in this poem, are truthful representations of what the impact depression had on her life (Sexton).

Though many critics criticized Sexton because of her presentation of dark personal experiences and erotic undertones, she received much acclaim in the decades after she died. In an essay written in 2003, Sexton was described as one of the creators of confessional poetry and a genius in the way she combines the personal and the impersonal to form very visual, intriguing images (Gill). Why did the criticism slowly turn into carefully constructed praise? Anne Sexton was a contemporary in her field. She, along with Sylvia Plath, was one of first to write in the confessional mode (Badia). Her self-disclosure created a new generation of poets. Therefore, by using directly personal experiences to further her literary achievements, Sexton started something new in the poetry genre and was harshly judged for it. But, as interest in mental illnesses grew, so did the popularity of Sexton’s poems. This poem, much like Sylvia Plath’s poem, gives insight into the nature of her experience with mental illness (though some things may be fictionalized, as poets, even confessional ones, have license to do) but cannot be used as a way to generalize symptoms and reactions of other people who have similar mental situations.

To return to the recent contributions that address mental illnesses, I chose to examine one of my very favorite books: Hurry Down Sunshine. In this book, published in 2008, Greenberg wrestles with the concept of reality. Because he is trying to present what is real and true about his experiences, he wonders whether his daughter, Sally, actually possesses some inexplicable genius has made her mad. He ponders questions like “isn’t this everyone’s struggle? To recruit others to our version of reality? To persuade? To be seen for what we think we are? (qtd. Greenberg 28)” Sally, throughout her “crack-up” is obsessed with the idea that “genius is not the fluke they want us to believe it is; no, it’s as basic to who we are as our sense of love, of God. Genius is childhood (qtd. 18).”

These types of obsessions are sometimes characteristic of people who are diagnosed with Bipolar 1. And, even though Sally is put on myriad of medications, her symptoms wax and wane as if they had no effect at all. Critics praised the memoir as a work that correctly identified the horror of manic depression and brings the reader closer to understanding Greenberg’s own struggle “to make sense of his daughter’s ordeal, let alone derive an uplifting moral from it (qtd. Donadio).” That seems to be what we look for in society: the moral of the story. Here, in Hurry Down Sunshine, there may not be one to find, as the book is much more about the journey and the effects of a mental illness. As a case study, the book accurately portrays what happened to one person through the course of her “madness.” The symptoms of Bipolar 1, which are not limited to but include restlessness, periods of hypomania and severe depression, loss of interest of things once enjoyed, and having too much confidence in one’s own abilities, are certainly present in this memoir (NIMH).

Another critic said the work could reach all different kinds of audiences, from people affected by the disorder to psychiatrists who are looking for a “useful depiction of a family’s experience” of the illness (qtd. Spiegel). Though this memoir is a very poignant illustration, it is not necessarily the solid truth of the illness. Because this critic, who may or may not understand psychology, is proclaiming the accuracy of this as a general example of mental illnesses, the information could very well be reinforcing the stereotype. Since the media is the most available and accessed source for information on mental illnesses, these types of generalizations are easily created and reinforced in the mind of the public and are harmful to the people who are stigmatized by such stereotypes (Edney).

As I move this paper into a more modern era, it becomes relevant to incorporate film. Because films reach a greater audience than literary works do, they are powerful methods of distributing information. When it comes to mental illnesses, an inaccurate theatrical portrayal can be damaging, regardless of whether it is positive or negative (Edney). This is the case with my next example, A Beautiful Mind, which was created in 2001. Though the ultimate message of the movie is inspirational, the portrayal of mental illness is dramatized to produce a more entertaining movie. Though it is sometimes upsetting, accuracy is often sacrificed for the possibly of profit, and this is especially true in the film industry. As John Nash, the main character, goes through his paranoid schizophrenia, the audience sympathizes with his struggle to succeed. His genius mind and extraordinary love for his wife give the audience the feeling that they have “shared the experience of its characters (qtd. Butler).”

Though the audience can relate and the idea of schizophrenia is positive, the portrayal is inaccurate. The symptoms of mental illness in this movie are fantastically exaggerated. For example, John’s schizophrenia is characterized by visual hallucinations, while actual paranoid schizophrenia is associated with auditory hallucinations. It is, however, good to note that the stereotypical and untruthful idea that schizophrenia is directly linked to childhood abuse, which is often seen in movies of this type, is absent (Butler).

Though this sympathetic view of mental illness is not directly catering to constructed stereotypes, the movie does reinforce the idea that the public should pity those like John, which leads people away from truer understanding of mental illnesses (Edney). The inaccurate information presented in the film could easily encourage us to assume that we understand and can identify the symptoms of particular mental illnesses, when the information we are basing our claims on is extremely dramatized. Though multiple genres have decided to make a spectacle of people affected by diseases of the mind, horror films are the movies that most often use the stereotypes of mental illnesses to inspire fear in the minds of the viewers.

We tend to be afraid of things we do not understand, and horror films take that concept and magnify it so that we, as watchers, are frightened. The thing is, those false concepts resonate with our minds and continue to rack us with terror, even though we understand that not everything in movies is real. In horror films, violence is frequently associated with mental illnesses. How does this association affect the viewers? The idea remains prevalent in the public mind and is sometimes thought to be common because of its proliferation in the media, even though criminal cases in which a person with a mental illness commits random murders are very rare. And how do these negative stereotypes affect people who are diagnosed with these types of illnesses?

Negative media coverage has been shown to increase the intensity of anxiety and depression in people affected with various types of mental illnesses and can even have enough of an impact as to hinder the recovery from such diagnoses. This does not even include the external effects of stigmatization which can include difficulty in finding employment and housing, which shows the discrimination stirred up by the false belief that people with mental illnesses are dangerous (Edney). My example for this section is the film, The Ward, which premiered in 2010. In this show, the main character, Kristen, is taken to a mental ward after she burns down a house for no apparent reason. She is put into a hospital with several other women who are all suffering from some mental illness, though we, as watchers, are not quite sure why they are there.

After a mysterious figure begins to kill off the women one by one, Kristen attempts to figure out what is going on. In the end, the psychiatrist at the ward informs her that she was suffering from multiple personality disorder, which meant that she was killing off all of her selves. Now, for people who are entertained by films like this, The Ward served its purpose. I was riveted by the story the entire time and was shocked by the ending. However, this seemingly entertaining and fictional story is giving a very inaccurate presentation of a mental illness, one that reinforces the concept of fear and violence in the minds of those who watch. Even educated and trained psychologists and psychiatrists who treat patients consistently can be exposed and influenced by these types of negative attitudes (Edney). This creates further problems with the treatment of mental illnesses and in the patient/doctor relationship.

As you can see from the examples presented, the ideas about mental illnesses and the stigma that has been reinforced countless times has not changed much over the years. Sure, new psychological studies are coming out every day that debunk the myths proliferated by society, but we, as a system, are clearly slow to receive and incorporate new information that is against our originally constructed ideas. Therefore, sad though it is to admit, our negative and/or false concept of mental illnesses has not changed over the last four hundred years.

Works Cited

  1. A Beautiful Mind. Dir. Ron Howard. Perf. Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly. Universal Pictures, 2001.
  2. Badia, Janet L. “Private Detail, Public Spectacle: Slyvia Plath’s and Anne Sexton’s Confessional Poetics and The Politics of Reception.” OhioLINK ETD Center. Ohio State University, 2000. Web. 19 Nov. 2011. < %20L.pdf?osu1250266949>.
  3. Boeree, C. G. “Sigmund Freud.” My Webspace Files., 1997. Web. 07 Dec. 2011. <>.
  4. Butler, Lynne M. “Review of A Beautiful Mind from the AMS Notices.” Haverford College. Apr. 2002. Web. 07 Dec. 2011. <>.
  5. Corrigan, Patrick W. “Mental Health Stigma as Social Attribution: Implications for Research Methods and Attitude Change.” 2000. Web. 22 Oct. 2011. <>.
  6. Donadio, Rachel. “Book Review – ‘Hurry Down Sunshine,’ by Michael Greenberg – Review –” NY Times Advertisement. 26 Sept. 2008. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. <>.
  7. Edney, Dara R. “About Mental Health : Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario.” Home : Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario (CMHA Ontario). Jan. 2004. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. < mental_health.asp?cID=7601>.
  8. Funk, Jeanne B., Heidi B. Baldacci, Tracie Pasold, and Jennifer Baumgardner. Violence Exposure in Real-life, Video Games, Television, Movies, and the Internet: Is There Desensitization? (2003). ScienceDirect. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. <>.
  9. Gibson, Bill. “Sylvia Plath.” Sylvia Plath Homepage. Web. 22 Oct. 2011. <>.
  10. Gill, Joanna. “”My Sweeney, Mr. Eliot”: Anne Sexton and the “Impersonal Theory of Poetry” EBSCO. 2003. Web. 18 Nov. 2011. < d526ba950787%40sessionmgr11&vid=1&hid=25&bdata=JnNpdGUSZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ %3d%3d#db=aph&AN=15019761>.
  11. Greenberg, Michael. Hurry down Sunshine. New York, NY: Other, 2008. Print. Kakutani, Michiko. “Books of the Times; Sexton’s Poetry: Better as Poetry Than Therapy – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 18 May 1988. Web. 19 Nov. 2011. < times-sexton-s-poetry-better-as-poetry-than-therapy.html>.
  12. Kaufman, James C., and John Baer. “I Bask in Dreams of Suicide: Mental Illness, Poetry, and Women.” Review of General Psychology, 2002. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. <>.
  13. Kennedy, X. J. “Poetry and Personal Identity.” Literature: an Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing, Compact Edition. By Sylvia Plath. New York: Longman, 2009. 635-37. Print.
  14. McDonald, Andrew. “The Portrayal of ECT in American Movies : The Journal of ECT.” LWW Journals – Beginning with A. Wolters Kluwer Health, Dec. 2001. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. < can_Movies.6.aspx>.
  15. National Institute of Mental Health. “NIMH · What Are the Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder?” NIMH · Home. National Institute of Mental Health, 15 Apr. 2009. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. < bipolar-disorder.shtml>.
  16. Poe, Edgar A. “Berenice.” The Literature Network: Online Classic Literature, Poems, and Quotes. Essays & Summaries., 2000. Web. 22 Oct. 2011. <>
  17. Sexton, Anne. “Wanting to Die by Anne Sexton : The Poetry Foundation.” Poetry Foundation. 1981. Web. 19 Nov. 2011. <>.
  18. Shakespeare, William, Burton Raffel, and Harold Bloom. “Act IV.” Hamlet. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. Print. Singer, Isaac B. “The Slaughterer.” Blackboard Learning System. Prof. Kimberly Kaczorowski, 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2011. <>,
  19. Spiegel, Maura. “Michael Greenberg, Hurry Down Sunshine.” Literature, Medicine, and Arts Database. New York University, 19 Apr. 2009. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. <>.
  20. Stanley, Alessandra. “Poet Told All; Therapist Provides the Record – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 15 July 1991. Web. 19 Nov. 2011. < record.html>
  21. The Ward. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, and Danielle Panabaker. FilmNation Entertainmnt, 2010. DVD.
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An Examination of the Concepts of Mental Illnesses in Literature and Film. (2021, Sep 27). Retrieved from

An Examination of the Concepts of Mental Illnesses in Literature and Film

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