Content Warning: The following article contains discussions of mental health conditions and violence.
From people with savant syndrome performing enormous computations in their heads to sufferers of schizophrenia having episodes of raging violence and mayhem, movies that misrepresent mental illness has been stereotyping disorders for decades. Mental illness manifests in a variety of ways, and Hollywood has been known to either downplay symptoms entirely or exaggerate them wildly for the sake of a movie's plot, both of which afford dangerously inaccurate perceptions to the public. For years, dissociative identity disorder cannot seem to be portrayed as anything other than terrifyingly violent and intrusive.
This is true in classics from Fight Club to Psycho and in more recent movies like Split, where the disorder is seen as the antagonist of the movie. Inaccurate depictions of mental illness do as much to woefully misinform as they do to sensationalize, all in the name of entertainment. There are also movies that take mental illness and turn it into a joke, where a person's actions based on their disorder are played for laughs, which remains one of the most insulting ways that comedies utilize it. Finally, there are movies that misrepresent mental illness by turning them into a superpower. While some might think this empowers people, it often just dismisses the serious nature of the disorders to falsely create an overpowered protagonist.
20 Malcolm Rivers
Pruitt Taylor Vince, Identity
Identity was a horror thriller with a big mystery at its heart. The movie set up a series of strangers at a roadside motel and then has a serial killer targeting them one by one. It is obvious one of them is the killer, but the question is which one it is. At the same time, there is a serial killer awaiting execution on Death Row. The twist here is that Malcolm is the serial killer, but the victims are his alternate personalities, as he has Dissociative Identity Disorder. Identity has a psychiatrist hoping to find out which of the alters is the killer and eliminate it to save Malcolm from his execution. This is one case where DID is sensationalized and the idea that the alters could kill each other is normal in movies that misrepresent mental illness.
19 Kevin Wendell Crumb
James McAvoy, Split (2016)
M. Night Shyamalan is said to have consulted doctors about the reality of dissociative identity disorder before making Split, but the terrifying way it’s represented suggests he didn’t take much of their commentary seriously. The movie focuses on Kevin and his abduction of three young girls. He interacts with them as different personalities (he has 23). The audiences primarily see four (Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig, and Barry), but eventually "The Beast" (a dangerous amalgamation) appears, pure cinematic fiction, and the graphic nature of his violence, including killing his own therapist, paints people with dissociative identity disorder in a horrific light.
18 Charlie Baileygates
Jim Carrey, Me, Myself, and Irene (2000)
With Jim Carrey in the lead, movies that misrepresent mental illness were bound to include Me, Myself, and Irene. His mild-mannered Charlie character combined with the tough-talking Hank is supposed to be a manifestation of dissociative identity disorder and schizophrenia. The film’s dark comedy comes from the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde antics that ensue when one personality tries to assert dominance over the other. Schizophrenia is characterized by delusions and paranoia but has no sign of multiple personalities, and with dissociative identity disorder, alters are not aware of each other. They cannot work together to fight enemies, nor can they fight each other, as they do in this movie.
17 Billy, Henry, Jack & Albert
Michael Keaton, Christpher Lloyd, Peter Boyle & Stephen Furst, The Dream Team (1989)
The Dream Team explores the ramifications of a group of mentally ill psychiatric patients permitted to leave the hospital ward and see a baseball game. Their supervisor is knocked unconscious, and they find themselves free to wander the streets of New York City, led by Billy (Michael Keaton). The characters are all stereotypes, with different psychological disorders. Billy is a nihilistic author, Henry (Christopher Lloyd) is a mail carrier who “went postal,” Jack (Peter Boyle) believes himself to be something akin to Jesus, and Albert (Stephen Furst) is compulsively obsessed with baseball broadcasts. The message of these movies that misrepresent mental illness posits that all they needed was a day in the “Real World” instead of psychotherapy and medications.
16 Andrew Largeman
Zack Braff, Garden State (2004)
Garden State tells viewers that if they’re diagnosed with a mental illness, but meet the right person, they won’t have to depend so much on medication and therapy. Such is the case for Andrew (Zach Braff) who’s taken antidepressants all his life for clinical depression, which only gets worse with the death of his mother. When he returns to his hometown for the funeral, he meets a bizarre girl (Natalie Portman) who shows him how to feel again. He goes off his medication because, in his mind, it was the pills that made his life joyless, not the depression. This mistakenly makes people who suffer from depression think they can just decide to be happy one day, and that it’s their lack of willpower that’s preventing them from being so. In reality, it’s genetics and/or a chemical imbalance in the brain.
15 Christian Wolff
Ben Affleck, The Accountant (2016)
The action-thriller The Accountant stars Ben Affleck as a CPA who served time for cooking the books for the world’s worst criminals — and while it made for a slick movie, it also severely misrepresented both autism and savant syndrome. Upon Christian Wolff's (Affleck) release, he starts up a tax firm to quietly reintegrate into society by day and go after the criminals he once worked for by night. He has been diagnosed with autism, and this allows him to be hyper-focused, but he has no social skills whatsoever. He can’t talk to women and has the need to “stim” constantly (a repetitive action an autistic person does to help regulate a state of extreme stress on their system). But, he is a world-class assassin thanks to his "superpower" of autism, an insulting trope in movies that misrepresent mental illness.
14 Bob Wiley
Bill Murray, What About Bob? (1991)
In What About Bob? Bill Murray plays Bob, a man with several psychological disorders and phobias. He becomes dependent on his doctor (Richard Dreyfuss) to guide him through his everyday challenges. When Dr. Marvin tries to go on vacation with his family, Bob’s neediness can’t allow him to be separated from his health professional. To treat someone as incapable as Bob, whose personality disorders make him incredibly clingy and unable to function without being taken care of, would take years of medication and therapy. Gaining acceptance from Dr. Marvin’s family was all it took to “conquer” his fears in one of the most grievous movies that misrepresent mental illness.
13 Arthur Fleck
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker (2019)
This origin story involving Gotham City's Clown Prince of Crime and Batman's greatest nemesis examines the role that society plays in forming a villain. It posits that a character like Arthur Fleck, derided by his peers for his unique mental illness (laughing or crying uncontrollably in inappropriate settings) could become The Joker if ostracized enough. Joker's mental illness makes him victimized, and the movie does a commendable job of highlighting society's fear about what it doesn't understand. But that fear of the obvious signs of mental illness quickly becomes validated when Fleck no longer takes his medication and becomes dangerously violent. His "descent into madness" requests viewers to have more compassion for those with mental illness, then reduces them to a cluster of harmful stereotypes.
12 Norman Bates
Anthony Perkins, Psycho (1960)
While it’s lauded as one of the most effective thrillers that cinema has ever seen, Psycho comes by this reputation as one of the most famous movies that misrepresent mental illness. Norman Bates, the bashful caretaker of the Bates Motel, is overly attached to his mother, and witnessing her become attached to new men and dividing her attention drives him into a rage. He poisons her and her lover and assumes ownership of the motel. When Bates meets Marian, a lovely traveler that stops in for a room, he ends up violently murdering her in the shower. This was said to be the personality of “Mother” taking over and becoming jealous of his affection for another woman. People that have dissociative identity disorder don’t have a personality that becomes “aware” of the other personality, and they are not characterized by extreme violent rages.
11 The Narrator
Edward Norton, Fight Club (1999)
At its core, Fight Club is about a man with dissociative identity disorder struggling to live in a world that requires a dominant personality to take charge. The Narrator uses the charismatic Tyler (Brad Pitt) as a coping mechanism. Tyler takes over whenever The Narrator can’t find purpose in his life (because if “everyone is special,” no one is). The book actually coined the term “snowflake” to describe The Narrator's disassociation from society. Where Fight Club gets The Narrator's mental illness wrong is implying that the mundanity of his daily struggles triggered a mental break allowing the dissociative identity disorder to emerge. In reality, it would have taken severe trauma. And just as in other movies that misrepresent mental illness, each personality wouldn’t be aware of the other one, much less be able to have full-on conversations.
10 Teddy Daniels
Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island (2010)
While a taut psychological thriller, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is mired in inaccurate depictions of mental illness in order to sensationalize the plot points they directly influence. It begins with a U.S. Marshal arriving at the fortress-like Ashecliffe Hospital in search of a murderous patient who's disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and spirals into a confrontation with his own psyche as the hospital's history is revealed. The twist at the end of Shutter Island can only occur because of the highly-dramatized nature of the mental illness (delusional disorder in this case), and the suspension of disbelief that a resilient person, having experienced family trauma, can break through their delusional reality during treatment, and then revert to it like a stuck record. The idea that a psychiatrist could have a person dealing with these issues role-play in an institution like this to find a cure makes this one of the movies that misrepresent mental illness.
9 Ellis Fielding
Dan Akyroyd, Loose Cannons (1990)
In this buddy cop action movie, Gene Hackman and Dan Aykroyd team up as a by-the-book lawman with a no-nonsense attitude, and a brilliant detective with an eccentric personality. One's brawn and the other's deductive reason are needed to solve the crime of the century, and together they're a couple of "loose cannons." One of the movies that misrepresent mental illness, Aykroyd's savant detective also has dissociative identity disorder, which is played entirely for laughs. He replicates the personalities of popular television characters and is responsible for nearly getting everyone around him killed on multiple occasions. It depicts his mental illness like being a werewolf or The Hulk; something that gets triggered and then becomes a party trick.
8 Nana & Pop Pop
Deanna Dunagan & Peter McRobbie, The Visit (2015)
Respected horror director M. Night Shyamalan is known for making movies that pull the rug out from under audiences in terrifying ways. In The Visit, he uses an innocent visit between two children and their grandparents to subvert expectations, creating an environment perfect for a confrontation of uncomfortable truths. Shyamalan uses the concept of "sundowning" to accomplish his task, a very real neurodegenerative disease that often affects people with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. However, unlike in the movie, which shows the children's grandmother Doris projectile vomiting and rabidly wielding butcher knives, those who suffer from it usually have dementia-related impairments, like forgetting who they are or those around them, becoming increasingly frustrated with simple tasks, and occasionally yelling.
7 Alexandra Forest
Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction (1987)
Glenn Close was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying a mentally ill woman obsessed with a married man, but over three decades later even, according to Prevention, Close regrets the way Fatal Attraction was one of the movies that misrepresent mental illness, specifically her character's bipolar disorder. In her eyes, the movie did nothing but reinforce the stigma that people suffering from BPD are violently unstable. To her credit, Close did extensive research for the part and even went so far as to speak with psychiatrists and invent an abusive past to somewhat explain her characters' erratic actions. While it's true, those with bipolar disorder can be highly emotionally reactive and express anger inappropriately, their symptoms are rarely like anything seen in Alex Forrest, who boils her lover's pet on the stove, pours acid on his car, and threatens the lives of his family.
6 Aaron Stampler
Edward Norton, Primal Fear (1996)
Edward Norton has made a reputation out of starring in movies that misrepresent mental illness, beginning with his defining performance in Primal Fear, where he plays an altar boy convicted of murdering Chicago's archbishop. A hotshot attorney takes his case, and while the Church's secrets are revealed, so is the mental illness exhibited by Norton's Aaron Stampler. The end of Primal Fear suggests that Stampler manipulated his lawyer, his psychiatrists, and the jury into believing he committed the crime when, in reality, that persona was a front for another more insidious one. By making dissociative identity disorder the "twist," it amplifies the fear society has of letting someone "get off by reason of insanity." It perpetuates the concept that anyone with a mental illness is a boogeyman, that they have control over their symptoms, and can turn them on and off to manipulate everyone around them.
5 Virginia Cunningham
Olivia de Havilland, The Snake Pit (1948)
There is something terrifying about waking up in a mental institution with no memory of your arrival, the names of doctors, or even a spouse. This scenario is precisely what occurs for Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland), who has been committed based on a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Because this movie was made in 1948, it stands to reason that the available literature on schizophrenia was based on extremely outdated information. The film chose to tackle the difficult subject at a time when the public was highly suspicious of "female hysteria." While it's praised for its focus on the often agonizingly slow recovery process, it has many mental breakdowns that point to the fragility of the female psyche specifically, and part of Virginia's "cure" is becoming a subservient wife to her husband makes it one of the movies that misrepresent mental illness.
Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces Of Eve (1957)
Joanne Woodward won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of three different personalities all found within the same person — Eve White, Eve Black, and Jane — but the praise for her portrayal of someone diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder overshadow the extreme grievances The Three Faces Of Eve as one of the movies that misrepresent mental illness. Eve's search for the truth about her different emerging personalities, some of whom are excessively violent, takes her to Dr. Luther, who does a number of hypnotherapies on her in an attempt to draw out the source of the trauma that created these identities. The therapy all happens too quickly and too succinctly to be believable, and the ending (in which Eve remarries and reunites with her daughter) glosses over the trauma she would have caused her family in the first place.
3 David Heflgott
Geoffrey Rush, Shine (1996)
It can be a tricky subject to accurately portray a real person with a mental illness in film, such as David Helfgott, the pianist who had a mental breakdown and was moved in and out of institutions for years. Considered one of Geoffrey Rush's best movies, Shine examines David's life during that time, interlaced with flashbacks to practicing piano with his father Peter Helfgott, and offers a sympathetic look at a man embracing a new way of life rather than running from it. After his breakdown, David is depicted as being able to return to the stage, when in fact he would not have been able to play without severe technical issues brought on by his schizophrenia, as the "genius" term often fails to recognize the auditory, visual, cognitive, and other physical impairments that the diagnosis brings on. Whi;e a great movie, it remains one of the movies that misrepresent mental illness.
Robin Williams, The Fisher King (1991)
While some aspects of The Fisher King are considered to be fantasy based on the narrative itself, the focus on the very real mental illnesses suffered by Parry, one of its central figures, should not be considered in the same way. He is presented as a delusional homeless man suffering from schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder, who aids an insensitive radio DJ on a path to redemption and comes across more like a caricature than a real person. So much of Parry's hallucinations (such as the Red Knight) and outbursts happen in ways conducive to driving the plot of seeking the Holy Grail — and giving its neurotypical hero character a second chance at life — rather than conveying the truly erratic ways in which they would manifest in a person with schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder.
Samuel L. Jackson, The Caveman's Valentine (2001)
In The Caveman's Valentine, Samuel L. Jackson portrays Romulus, once a great composer now a disheveled man who lives in one of New York's parks. He emerges from his cave to find a young boy frozen to death on Valentine's Day and has an overwhelming desire to try to find the man responsible for what he believes to be his murder. Romulus is portrayed as both a boogeyman and at times a completely lucid person, who somehow (despite having severe hallucinations and fits) can undertake a complicated investigation. Not only would a person diagnosed with schizophrenia spectrum disorder at his level lack the cognitive ability to do so without active and intense treatment, but he's also portrayed as incredibly violent when people with schizophrenia are no more likely to exhibit violent behavior than anyone else with a mental illness. It's a sensationalized myth specifically used in movies that misrepresent mental illness.