One of the most worrying things about the stigma associated with mental illness is that if we are shying away from it, if we are not asking the right questions and not giving people the right support, then there is a potential for harm. Not just for the individual, but for the wider community.
We can see examples of this in recent high profile cases both England and the US such as the case of Nicola Edgington, a woman with serious schizophrenia. On several occasions, she asked for serious help and did not receive it. She made several 999 calls warning the operator of her feelings, but after these calls were ignored, she brutally attacked and killed a lady at random.
There is a real sense that the stigma attached to mental illness can result in serious harm. Fundamentally, we need to get to a point where mental illness is treated just like any kind of illness. Treatment should not differ from diabetes or high blood pressure or hypertension. I think one of the biggest barriers towards this is the way that mental illness is portrayed in society; we simply do not see it. It is not in our popular culture. That is why films like the BAFTA award-winning Silver Linings Playbook can have such a huge and positive effect.
I don't tweet very often, but after seeing the movie; one of the first things I did was come home and tweet about the importance of the film. Not simply because it portrayed and spoke about mental illness but it did so in a way in which it showed people as human beings first and people with mental illness later. So often, we see people portrayed as a caricature of their illness. Like any other illness, it is not definitive of who you are and it does not take away your hopes, beliefs and desires. This came across very well in the film. The film succeeds in exemplifying that mental illness does not occur in a vacuum; it affects all those around them. There are very moving scenes in the movie between Pat Junior and Pat Senior, who himself displays obsessive symptoms, however, it is clear in the movie that he may not have been diagnosed with OCD which often happens with mental illnesses and is something that is reflected in society many times. What you see is a sense of respect and a sense of love within the chaos in their relationship. The fact that the two can exist together is fundamental to the beauty, sincerity and intelligence of the film.
You do not get behavioural change without attitudinal change and I think television and film have a big role to play in changing attitudes. I think it did so for to a large extent for the gay movement, the civil rights movement and hopefully it will do the same for the mental health movement. Silver Linings is a pioneer in some respects, in the same way that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest made a big difference back in the 70s.
I am hoping now that we will see more of it. One of my other favourite shows is Breaking Bad; it shows genuinely flawed characters but more importantly it has a positive, realistic, wonderful portrayal of a young man living with cerebral palsy, played in fact by an actor who has the condition himself. I think we are following the right path and I hope that more of Hollywood, popular magazines. Books and popular culture takes it and runs with it. One in four of us lives with some sort of mental illness. A recent study with over 35 countries with over 1000 participants with people with mental illness, when respondents were asked how they felt about mental illness, 75% said that they felt ostracised. That is not okay. When you feel ostracised and ashamed, it is a barrier to treatment, it is a barrier to integration in society and it is a barrier to getting better and we cannot let that happen.
One of the things that Silver Linings Playbook does is it is a bit like trying to get your children to eat vegetables; sneaking broccoli into cupcakes; it is funny and it is entertaining, but at the same time it holds up a mirror to the fact that mental illness is something we refuse to explore. We are embarrassed to bring up the subject in a light-hearted way. These characters are portrayed in a genuine way; it is destigmatising. You do not see the illness. It is definitely there but the illness is an accessory. It is not who the person is. It does pay attention to the person's hopes and beliefs. The most important thing is that it does show you the differences. These little idiosyncrasies are what make us unique. Regardless of all of differences and idiosyncrasies, we all share something in common; it is the need to be accepted by others and more importantly to accept ourselves. It is played beautifully and the other thing that they do very well is that each of the characters makes sense. The mother's character is very well played out. Illness does permeate throughout the family. And the love story...the idea that these people are falling in love with each other. At the same time, by falling in love with each other, it is always about making sure they still like themselves, which with mental illness or not, it is something that we can all learn from.
It is a difficult thing to address the issue because it is not something we talk about; it is something that embarrasses us and makes us feel uncomfortable. Where there is secrecy, there is shame and with shame, there is the perpetuation of secrecy. That is what has happened with mental illness. Overcoming other illnesses is seen as a badge of honour, there seems to be a lot of shame associated with mental illness. People do feel uncomfortable addressing the issue. Beyond that, I think people are unsure of how to deal with it. I cannot tell you how many people come up to me and ask how to get help for mental health problems. Knowing what to do when a loved one has a mental illness is not the easiest thing in the world. In terms of supporting people, the first thing I would do is go to your GP and if it helps write down the symptoms beforehand; explain how long you have experienced these symptoms and how often they happen. Feeling lethargic is very different to, for example, taking forever to find the will and energy to make yourself a simple meal. Be clear about what is going on. The other thing is that it is imperative that one seeks support from those around you. Every illness, both psychologically and physiologically, is better faced when we have social support. Seek that from friends and family; explain to them what is happening. Ultimately, know that this is not your fault in the same way that contracting cancer or multiple sclerosis is not your fault. We have a predisposition to some illnesses; something will trigger them. Guilt or shame is the least helpful thing when it comes to this situation.
One of the great things about depictions of conditions like bipolar is whether in Silver Linings Playbook or great shows like Homeland, we are finally addressing these issues in popular culture. We live in a time where we aspire and listen to popular culture and as a result it does have a huge impact upon shaping attitudes. In the same way that the Huxtables' positive portrayal of African Americans back in the 80s in the hit sitcom The Cosby Show was instrumental or having gay couples in Friends played an important role in the gay rights movement in the 90s, I think that hopefully Silver Linings Playbook will do the same thing for mental health rights. That is a really important point to note about this film.
Follow Dr Linda Papadopoulos on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DrLinda_P