It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Craig, a high-school student at an elite prep school in New York City, was admitted to a psychiatric inpatient unit for suicidal idealization. With the stress of summer school applications, getting into the perfect college, and his feelings for his best friend’s girlfriend, Craig found himself preoccupied with thoughts of jumping off a bridge. When the thoughts became consuming Craig went to the emergency department asking for help. In the ED, the doctor said he did not seem to be a threat to himself and did not need to be admitted, however, Craig pleaded for help. I think this depiction of the limitation of mental health treatment is an important one. It seems to be black and white- either you are in crisis and you are okay. So often people don’t receive the care they need or are not taken seriously until a crisis event occurs. My own
depression was not taken seriously until I made an attempt on my life, because I didn’t seem like someone who should be depressed. I was a top student. I had loving parents. I was a talented runner. My “cries for help” were seen as just normal teenage angst. Additionally, with countless barriers, especially to people of lower socioeconomic status, such as financial limitations, lack of access to transportation, long-wait times, and lack of insurance coverage, preventative outpatient care becomes infeasible for many. Additionally medicine seems to be more reactive than preventive. One may not be seen as serious or recieve help until an emergency occurs, and even then, care is acute stabilization rather than long-term intervention. This is also seen in the movie. Some patients were on the unit for their fifth or sixth time- just cycling through crisis after crisis. There was a man who was going to be homeless when he was discharged. It is a sad reality that many people are put right back into the circumstances that are hurting their mental health. Though the outcomes are somewhat idealized, the movie, nevertheless, does a good job at addressing this gap in mental health care.
During his stay in the hospital, Craig explores what is making him feel depressed. He expressed feeling like he should not be depressed because he goes to a good school, he had a family that loves him, he has friends, and to any outside observer he seems very successful. This goes to show that mental illness doesn’t just affect people who have experienced trauma or who live in bad circumstances. Though such things certainly increase one’s risk, they are not defining factors. While talking to the psychiatrist on the unit, Craig went through what would happen if he didn’t get into the competitive summer school program he was applying to. If he didn’t get in then he would not be able to put it on college application which means he would not get into a good college. If he didn’t get into a good college then he could not get a good job, and, therefore, he would not be able to make money to support the lifestyle he wanted, girls would not like him, and he would not be happy. He would end up homeless, unsuccessful, and a disappointment to his family. This
catastrophizing way of thinking is common in people with anxiety and depression. I had a similar stream of events go through my head whenever I got a bad grade. If I got a bad grade, I would not get into a good college, and, therefore, I would not get into medical school. Then I would not be happy, and all the money I spent trying to get there would be wasted. I would be broke and homeless, and no one would love me. I think this “out of control” way of thinking is an important difference between people experiencing stress and people suffering from mental illness. Whereas one person may be able to take such thoughts, realize they are irrational, and move on, another person may be consumed by them. I was so consumed by such thoughts in high school that I could not sleep, eat, or get anything done. I would spend hours surrounded by textbooks, staring at them completely immobilized. That was the difference between me and most of my peers. That was also how Craig differed from his peers who seemed to “just be able to deal with the stress.”
At the end of the movie when Craig was being discharged, he said that he was not all better now. Five days in the hospital did not fix him. It was just the beginning of a long journey that would take a lot of hard work. This is a crucial point. Craig went into this hospital looking for a “quick fix.” He wanted the doctors to just give him medicine or something. Improving one’s mental health, however, is a hard life-long process. Personality, I felt hopeless when recovery was painted as perfection. I thought to be recovered, I couldn’t be sad or stressed at all. I thought that I couldn’t have any “mental illness thoughts.” With this view, recovery seemed impossible. I had to learn and accept that recovery is imperfect and I will always have to work towards being a better version of me. Craig realized this too. The movie ends with him saying that he day he just lives. He draws – as passion of his that he discovered while inpatient -, he spends time with people he cares about, and he appreciates the world around him. I think this is a realistic portrayal of what recovery from mental illness and the improvement of one’s mental health really is.
Set in the 1960’s, “Girl, Interrupted” is about a recent high school graduate who is admitted to a psychiatric hospital after a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt. The movie is based on a memoir written by Susanna Kaysen. At the start of the movie, Susanna was the only student in her graduating class not attending college, and she was put down for her desire to pursue writing. She was labeled as “going nowhere” and was suffocating under the weight of her parent’s criticism and disappointment. To cope, Susanna developed a pessimistic and permissive attitude, and turned to reckless sex as a means to feel. She also suffered delusions. In the ED- after chasing a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka for, what she claimed to be at the time, a headache- Susanna said that she didn’t have bones in her wrist before, but they grew back before arriving at the hospital.
At the psychiatric hospital Susanna was diagnosed with
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), though her doctor refused to explain to her what that diagnosis meant leaving Susanna confused and impressionable to the different notions of ‘crazy’ she was exposed to. She compared herself to other patients and began to mimic “crazy” behaviors that she came to believe were her own. Susanna accidentally learned of her diagnosis in a meeting with her parents and doctor. Her doctor had told her parents that she had BPD but did not tell Susanna. When her parents mentioned it in the meeting, the doctor said discussing what BPD is would not be helpful for Susanna. Though this idea that keeping psychiatric patients in the dark about their own illness was more extreme in the 1960s, it is still a mindset of some doctors today. When I was first hospitalized for my eating disorder, I asked my doctor to explain to me what it was and why I was sick. She responded that such a conversation would engage my disorder, and she would not have it. Throughout years of treatment as an adolescent, I often felt like I was being lied to, or at least given less information that was given to my parents. There would be secret conversations beyond locked doors which only made the ideas of what was being said in my head worse. I believe that I became more sick from being kept out of the decisions in my own treatment. It just was more weight to the belief that I was crazy and hopeless. Additionally, in this scene, Susanna’s parents made her diagnosis all about them. They first asked what they did wrong and if they caused this. They then turned defensive saying that they were good parents. As the doctor explained possible ‘causes’ of BPD, Susanna’s mother became hysterical and said that she could not handle this. Two thoughts came up for me at this moment. First, I was angry at Susanna’s parents for not acknowledging their daughter’s struggles and making it all about them. Second, I thought of the impact of mental illness on other people. These battling thoughts are something I often grapple with. Mental illness is not a choice, and the person who is suffering should not be blamed. Additionally the development of a mental illness is not the fault of others, though at times maltreatment may be a trigger. It is common for parents to feel at fault when their child is diagnosed with a mental illness. I know my parents certainly felt some blame. This is completely reasonable to feel, however, if it is expressed as anger or disappointment, it can have negative effects on the person suffering. Nevertheless, I think it is important for people with mental illness to understand the impact they have on people in their life’s. There must be a balance between understanding that they are not to blame and are not ‘bad’ for having an illness, but at the same time they do not live in a bubble and their actions can hurt people. Where this balance lies is highly individual. I struggled immensely with guilt, and I let myself become consumed by the fact that I was hurting people to the point that I actually hurt them more. I convinced myself that because my illness was difficult for my family to deal with that they would be better off without me and was completely blinded to the fact that such would only hurt them more. I needed to learn to become a little more patient and understanding of myself which in turn helped me mend the pain I was causing. I had to learn to hold the realities that this was both not my fault or choice and I was not a bad person, and that actions I took within the contexts of my illness hurt other people at the same time. They both existed, however, did not have a causal relationship. The fact that I was hurting people did not make it my fault or make me a bad person, and the fact that this was not my fault and I was not a bad person did not mean I wasn’t hurting people. Susanna had to come to a similar realization, however, in a different manner. Where I was leaning too much to the side of guilt and self-depreciation, Susanna was in denial that she was doing any harm.
Throughout the movie, Susanna grabbed with what it is to be ‘crazy’, if she was crazy, and if that was a good or bad thing. The degree to which her behaviors were intrinsically her own or her disorder taking on the personalities of others was never clearly established, but that goes to show the murky boundaries of BPD and a large struggle of the disorder. Susanna befriended several other women in the hospital, namely Lisa, a charismatic, but manipulative, sociopath (
antisocial personality disorder). Lisa took treatment as a joke, wasting time in therapy and tonguing her medications to trade with other patients later. This attitude rubbed off on Susanna who quickly started doing the same things. She came to embrace being ‘crazy’ for all the wrong reasons. She viewed it as a rebellion and was in denial of the seriousness of her mental illness and those of the other patients.
Lisa also needed to be in control of the other patients and felt little remorse for damage she caused. This is seen clearly in a scene where Lisa and Susanna run away and stay the night at Daisy’s house. Daisy was a patient who was recently discharged and was living in an apartment her dad bought her. Lisa harshly exposed the fact that Daisy was being sexually abused by her father and accused her of enjoying it. She berated Daisy, with seemingly no concern for how such was hurting her. This was a breaking point for Daisy who killed herself the following morning. Susanna found Daisy’s body and broke down, feeling responsible for her death because she did not stand up for her against Lisa the past night. Lisa, however, took money from the clothes Daisy was wearing and left before the police came without a sign of remorse. From my knowledge, this behavior is a hallmark of sociopathy, however, I have limited knowledge on the disease. I did notice throughout the movie glimpses of empathy from Lisa that showed the person behind her disease and gave insight into her inner turmoil. I appreciate that she was not portrayed as completely cold-hearted and evil which could have easily been done for dramatic purposes. Though I believe the actions of Lisa were dramatized for the sake of entertainment, the movie still did a good job showing the human behind the disease and the complex inner turmoil of living with a personality disorder.
After the experience with Daisy and Lisa, Susanna returned to the hospital. Shaken by Daisy’s suicide and her feelings of guilt and blame around it, Susanna came to realize that mental illness is serious and she needed to take recovery seriously. She started being honest with her doctors, writing about her feelings and experiences in her journal, and drawing. She turned inwardly to explore the root of her thoughts and behaviors. This helped Susanna established her own identity so she did not feel like she needed to have an identity in other people.
In the final scene when Susanna is riding home from the hospital she says in her own thoughts, “Was I ever crazy? Maybe. Or maybe life is… Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It’s you or me amplified.” She continues in explaining how we all experience similar thoughts and behaviors as people with mental illness, however, “crazy” is when these thoughts and behaviors take control. I think this statement leads to two important understandings. First it draws a line of connection between people with and people without mental illness that can help people without mental illness empathize. Second, seemingly in contrast to the first, it shows a distinct between those with mental illness and those without. For example, being sad sometimes is not the same as being depressed. Though these understandings seem to be opposing, I believe when held together with equal weight they produce a balanced awareness of mental illness that is easily distorted by holding either extreme independently.
To the Bone
This movie follows the story of a 20-year-old girl, Ellen, battling
anorexia. The movie starts well into Ellen’s journey. At this point she has been struggling for years. She has seen several doctors, been hospitalized multiple times, and has been labeled as “treatment resistant.” She had to drop out of college and move back home. Ellen was originally living with her mother, who had come out as lesbian a few years earlier and divorced Ellen’s father to marry a woman with whom she was having an affair. Ellen’s mother cared deeply for her, but was herself not emotionally stable and could not ‘handle’ Ellen’s disease anymore. Therefore, Ellen was sent to live with her father and stepmother, Susan. Ellen’s father was never in the picture, and her stepmother became her primary caregiver. Ellen’s step-sister also lived in the house, and the two grew close.
Susan fights to get Ellen in with Dr. Beckman, an unconventional doctor known for a high success rate with eating disorder patients. Dr. Beckman agrees to treat Ellen under two conditions- they don’t talk about food and she agrees to at least six months inpatient at his residential treatment program. Reluctantly, Ellen agrees. Though Ellen comes across as defiant, with a deeper look it is clear that she does not want to be sick. However, her illness is all she knows and all she has been ‘good at’ for a long time. It is her coping mechanism, and the idea of losing it is terrifying. She has lost hope that she will ever be able to recover.
A part that stood out to me was a scene during which Ellen’s family came to the house for a family therapy session. When Dr. Beckman asked Ellen’s sister how she felt, she replied that she doesn’t understand why Ellen can’t just eat. She also said that she looks back on the experiences in her life and remembers, “That is when Ellen was in the hospital. That is when Ellen fainted on the bus.” She finished by saying she just wants to have a sister. She doesn’t want her to die. This scene hit home for me because my sister said similar things about her experience with my illness. I think this portrayal of the impact an eating disorder has on family members is important and powerful. Eating disorders thrive on disconnection and isolation. The person suffering from the illness is never the only victim. Also during this scene, Ellen said that the turmoil in her family is all her fault. To this Dr. Beckham said to forget blame. It has no placing in healing. I like how the movie showed the negative impacts of Ellen’s illness on her family while also making the important point that she is not to blame.
A girl who saw some of Ellen’s artwork on Tumblr killed herself and left a note saying it because of one of Ellen’s drawings. The parents of this girl blamed Ellen and sent her picture of their dead daughter so Ellen would “know what she had done.” Ellen was traumatized by this. She immediately took the pictures down saying that she never wanted to hurt anyone. Later when discussing these events with Dr. Beckham, Ellen said that she was just trying to draw what she knew. This shows the influences of social media on the susceptible minds’ of adolescents, especially those already struggling.
In relation to the topics in this movie, there was a lot of controversy because some people feared that it glamorizes eating disorders and/or gives away “tips and tricks” for eating disorder behaviors. There is an online community called Proanna that promotes eating disorders and presents them as a lifestyle rather than an illness. People were worried that this movie would have similar impacts as Proana. I don’t think it does. I think the movie does a good job painting anorexia as a deadly illness and not something of desire. Where I can see how parts of the movie may be detrimental to someone deep in an eating disorder- namely talk of calories, depiction of purging and hidden exercise, and the sight of thin people- I don’t think this movie should be a target for blame. It is showing the truth which I don’t think should be hidden just because it could be triggering. We don’t solve the problem of the negative influence of media by hiding it from people who may be influenced. Ultimately this is impossible. We need to educate people and have realistic depictions that combat the ones that glamorize things such as eating disorders. When I was in treatment, I was told to avoid anything that talked about eating disorders because it could be triggering. I believe, though, that being sheltered in such a way made things worse, especially when I was exposed to something triggering which was inevitable. When people stopped shealtering me, I learned how to cope and how to think critically about the information I was exposed to. Though my eating disorder was influential and often lead me to believe things that were not true, there was still an intelligent young girl behind there. When I was given all the information and allowed to draw my own conclusions, I was more equipped to combat the lies the eating disorder was telling me.
After being expelled from another private high school, Charlie is sent to public school. Growing up with an isolated population of the elite and wealthy, Charlie does not fit in well in this new setting. He lives in a mansion with his doting, but depressed, and at times aloof, mother. His father is in prison. On his first day, Charlie is beat up for wearing a blazer and carrying a briefcase. When he comes home with a black eye, his mother insists that he talks to the family physiatrist. Charlie is wrongfully diagnosed with
ADHD and prescribed Ritalin. After 3 days on the medication, it makes him high, and he is caught by the police running through the street naked. When the police take him home, Charlie overhears them talking to his mother about how ADHD medications can make people high and that all the kids in the colleges are using them now. Charlie gets the idea that he can sell the rest of his medication to students at school, and maybe that would make people like him more. He convinces the kid that beat him up on the first day, Murphy, to form a partnership with him. Murphy agrees, but only for the money. Charlie and Murphy sell the entire bottle in one night at a school dance. The two continue to sell Ritalin in the boy’s bathroom.
Shortly, after the school dance, Charlie is approached by a boy, Kip, who says that he is depressed and has episodes where he feels like he is having a heart attack. He says that he really needs something to help, but he cannot tell his parents. I think Kip’s experience depicts a reality for many struggling adolescents.They don’t fully understand what is going on. They know something is wrong, but they are so terrified of being judged that they keep quiet. Another reality for some teenagers is having parents that are in denial or do not believe in mental illness and, therefore, refuse to help their child. This movie is 12 years old, and I believe that there has been some improves in the awareness and destigmatization of mental illness. There however, it much improvement that still needs to be made. I have had more than one friend voice that they cannot tell their parents about their struggles. Charlie researches the symptoms Kip described and figures out exactly what to say to his psychiatrist to get a prescription for Zoloft and Xanax for depression and
anxiety. Before long, people are lining up to talk to Charlie in his office- the boys bathroom. There Charlies provides a “therapy session” to anyone who comes, and “prescribes” them medication based on their needs. He gets the medicine by gaming serval physiatrists, going to each of them presenting different symptoms of the students who came to talk to him. The physiatrists very quickly and easily give Charlie these medications. It is true that Charlie was seeing different doctors with different “symptoms,” and he was a smart boy who did his research on what to say; however, I think this also shows how some doctors jump on giving medication when, I believe, it is not completely necessary. It is my opinion that
SSRIs and SNRIs are overprescribed. They are often given as a bandaid when psychotherapy and behavioral therapy methods may be more difficult and time-consuming, but more effective and have fewer side effects and long term consequences. I do think there are many people who benefit from antidepressants, but I do not think they should be the first line of treatment or the sole treatment for anyone struggling with a mental illness. I think this is especially important in adolescents who have rapidly growing and changing brains. Being on medications that alter neurochemistry during this developmental period may impede the brain’s ability to naturally produce neurotransmitters and the individual’s ability to learn how to cope which, in large, is part of frontal lobe and amygdala development. There are certainly cases where antidepressants and similar drugs may be necessary to help an individual function, and in those cases I think such medications should be implemented. I just think it should be a well thought out decision that carefully weighs the pros and the cons.
During this time, Charlie falls for the principal’s daughter, Susan. The principle, Mr. Gardner, is suspicious of Charlie and sees him as a bad influence on his daughter. Mr. Gardner is dealing with a whole host of his own issue. After his wife had an affair and left him, he became severely depressed, drowning himself in alcohol. One night he has an episode where he was waving around a handgun, threatening to kill himself in front of his daughter. He was treated for this episode and tried to reconnect with his daughter, but there remained a distance between them as Mr. Garnder continued to deal with crippling depression and turn to alcohol to cope. Despite his struggles at home, he put on a front at school and tried to be a good influence on the students, but he lacks any respect. He clearly hates being a principal and misses his old role as a history teacher. I think the struggles Mr. Garnder faces are portrayed well. It would be tempting to just make him an “evil” antagonist. Research that I have read so far has said that many characters with mental illness are shown as bad, violent, and evil. However, he is shown as a human being. He is flawed and makes many mistakes. He does not cope with his depression in the best way. He loves his daughter, though, and wants desperately to connect with her. He also cares about his students and wants to not only see them get through high school, but also succeed in high school. He struggles, though, with gaining their respect and turns to restrictive measures which causes many students to rebel against him. He then feels like a failure and turns to drinking to drown his feelings of inadequacy, thus feeding the negative cycle. I think this is a realistic depiction of how good people go down ‘dark’ paths. Struggling with mental health and making bad choices to cope, do not make a person bad. This does not mean it is okay and people do not get hurt, but I think is important to look at the bigger picture and focus on healing rather than placing blame, as ultimately happens in this movie.
Tension climbs between Charlie and Mr. Gardner as Charlie is discovered to be selling tapes of fights in school- sometime he was doing to make money to give to the victims of the fights- and the superintendent put it in Mr. Gardner’s head that Charlie was “just trying to fuck the principal’s daughter.” Meanwhile, Susan was confiding in Charlie- telling him all about her mother and her father’s episode and drinking problem. Additionally, Murphy starts opening up to Charlie and Charlie helps him find the confidence to put down his walls of this ficre bully. Murphy says that he became the bully that he is because he used to be teased and beaten up, and it was better to become the bully. It could just be the high school I went to, but I think these roles of bullies and victims are a bit dramatized in movies. From my experience bullying is more passive than activity beating up another person. The concept that people who are bullied become bullies is a real one, but I think the concept of bullying that is depicted is a limited, especially with all the social media platforms available today. I do like the point, however, that the “bad” character is not actually bad. There are deeper issues that Murphy is struggling with. It is not true that all people who struggle with mental illness turn to violence, which is something that research has found is overrepresented in movies, but some people do. This movie does a good job at shedding light on the underlying struggles of many otherwise stereotypical characters and showing how they are complex. It also shows how being open and bringing awareness of these struggles can help with healing. Many of the students learned that they are more similar than they originally believed and that no one is perfect or completely happy or completely bad despite their outward appearance.
A turning point for Charlie, came when Kip overdosed on the medication Charlie had given him. After this it became clear to Mr. Gardner what Charlie was doing, although he could not prove it. He went to Charlie’s house to tell him he was out of line and needed to stop. He asked Charlie why he was doing what he was doing, to which Charlie replied that he was finally liked. Mr. Gardner said that there are more important things than popularity, but Charlie had a hard time seeing anything more important for a high schooler. Also, at this point, Charlie knew about Mr. Gardner’s past and questioned him on his mental health. Mr. Gardner replied, “Some days are better than others.” Charlie thought about what he was doing and what his motives where. At realized that he could help people in different ways, and though that may not elevate his social status, there were things that were more important. He announced that he would no longer be selling drugs, but he would still hold “therapy sessions” in the bathroom free of charge. He was surprised to see people still lining up to talk to him. Charlie also went to visit Kip at his house after he was released from the hospital. Kip expressed feeling invisible and that Charlie would not understand because he was popular and everything came easy to him. Charlie told Kip that he struggles too. He is unable to forgive his father and he feels immense pressure to care for his mother. Kip shares a play that he has written with Charlie. The two bring the play to Mr. Garnder who agrees to let the theater program perform it. The paper Mental Health Conditions in Film and TV: Portrayals that Dehumanize and Trivialize Characters that I read talked about the importance of showing that people can attempt suicide and recover from such, going on to live normal lives. This was shown in the movie with Kip. He was not completely better after surviving his attempt, but with the help of Charlie he pursued his passion of playwriting and slowly found more reasons to live.
Things seem to be getting better between Charlie and Mr. Gardner, however, they quickly turn again.The tension between the two hits a peak when Charlie came over and handed Susan a pharmacy bag. Mr. Gardner assumed it was drugs and demanded that the bag was given to him and that Susan goes back inside. Susan refused, at which point Mr. Gardner grabbed for her arm and Charlie struck Mr. Gardner in the face, defending Susan. Susan drops the back, which turned out to have nicotine gum in it to help her stop smoking, and left with Charlie. Mr. Gardner called the police and had Charlie arrested for assault. Meanwhile, the students are protesting the placement of security cameras in the student lounge. Charlie goes to the protest where he is seen as a leader. He stands up in front of everyone chanting his name, which has been a fantasy of his, but surprisingly, tells the students that he is not special. He struggles with the same insecurities that everyone else does,and they don’t need him to know what to do. They need to believe in themselves. While he is giving this speech, the police come and arrest him and a riot gives out. At this point Mr. Garnder is fired for letting such chaos ensue.
Charlie is picked up from the police station by his mom who shows no anger towards her son. Charlie asks his mom why he is not angry. She says that she has a hard to being angry when this is probably her fault. When Charlie’s dad was leaving for prison, he told Charlie to take care of his mother. Charlie had to grow up too fast and felt the responsibility to take care of his mother so he was never able to be a child. Charlie decides that it is time to forgive his father and move on. He goes to visit his father which is something he refused to do up to this point. I liked this interaction between Charlie and his mother. While up to this point, it seemed like Charlie’s mother just didn’t care or didn’t want to see what her son was doing, in this scene it became clear that she blamed herself for it. I think feelings of blame and fault are some of the greatest barriers to improving one’s mental health. People become consumed by these feelings which often leads to isolation and can even fester into self-hatred or anger towards others. I like that this issue was addressed.
Mr. Gardner slips even further into his depression, and Susan refuses to talk to him. At the opening night of the play written by Kip, Charlie asks Susan if her dad is coming. Susan says that he doesn’t care enough to sit in a room full of people who hate him to see his daughter on stage. However, Charlie goes over to his house to invite him to the play. When he gets there he finds Mr. Gardner on the pool deck very drunk and shooting a toy boat in the pool. Charlie tries to talk him down to which Mr. Gardner responds that he doesn’t understand. Charlie agrees. He does not understand. Charlie is just a kid, but what he does know is that Mr. Gardner’s daughter loves him. Mr. Gardner keeps wielding the gun around. Afraid that he will shoot himself, Charlie jumps at him to which Mr. Gardner reacts by pushing Charlie into the diving board. Charlie hits his head and falls to the bottom of the pool. Mr. Gardner pulls himself out of his cloud of self-pity and jumps in to save Charlie. In that moment, he sees what a mess he has become. The two clean themselves up and go to the play. The movie ends with Mr. Gardner getting his job as a history teacher back, and Charlie and Susan are together. Charlie tries to get an internship at a psychiatric institute to pursue a career in helping people who struggle with mental health. Well I think these final scenes were moving, I think I was a bit too dramatic. As I have stated before, there is no such thing as an epiphany moment where one suddenly gets better. So far this is the biggest concern I have with the portrayal of mental health in movies. I see the push to provide a feel-good ending that leaves the audience with a sense of resolution. However, in terms of mental illness depictions, doing such can give a false and trivializing representation of recovery. That said, it is important to leave a message of hope in movies that discuss mental illness. I think the best route is a middle ground, such as that in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” that shows the character(s) on the road of recovery. This shows that there is hope, but recovery is also long, hard work.
The Skeleton Twins
This movie tells the story of twins Maggie and Milo. As children the two were very close, however they have spent the last 10 years of their adult life apart. The movie starts with Milo attempting
suicide and Maggie contemplating doing the same. However, as Maggie stands with a handful of pills, she receives a call that Milo is in the hospital. Maggie goes to visit him- this being the first time they have seen each other in 10 years- and convinces Milo to move in with her and her newly wedded husband, Lance. Lance is a happy-go-lucky guy; a stark contrast from the depressive twins. I think the suicide attempts were depicted in a nonchalant manner. Milo plays rock music and writes a note saying “See ya later.” Maggie looks in the mirror with a ‘whatever’ attitude. It seems like little emotion and inner turmoil is shown. This is different from Mr. Garnder who was in an irrational, emotional rage, and Craig who battled his inner thoughts of his parents and sister as he stood on the bridge, terrified of where he was at. Though it is true that some people become so emotionally numb and in so much pain that they make the ‘clear-headed,’ and seemingly nonchalant choice, to end their lives, but this is not the sense given in the movie. Milo even says when Maggie comes to see him in the hospital, “I was just feeling depressed and melodramatic.” People don’t end their lives because they are feeling melodramatic. This greatly diminishes the struggle people go through when they reach that point. It also gives the idea that people kill themselves to make a point- either revenge or to get attention. Though this is not completely untrue in some cases (the act of suicide has been ‘weaponized’ by some individuals) it at least oversimplifies some people’s motives and is a false representation of others. The movie is trying to discuss serious issues well being light-hearted and approachable. While I see the purpose, I think it trivializes suicide. However, I do think the movie does a good job at showing that surviving a suicide attempt is not an epiphanic moment and healing after is possible, but it is also hard work.
As the movie continues, events of Milo and Maggie’s past are brought to light as both work through their current struggles. Viewers learn that Milo and Maggie’s dad killed himself when they were younger. Their distant and selfish mother remarried and started a new family with new children. Milo had a relationship with one of his teachers in high school, Rich. Part of the tension between Maggie and Milo is that Maggie brought attention to this inappropriate relationship and Rich was fired. While back in his hometown living with Maggie, Milo tracks down Rich who is now married and has a son. Milo tells Rich that their relationship was special to him, and after spending time together again, they have an affair. After sleeping together, Rich calls it off. Milo feels like he peaked in high school. He thought he was going to be a famous writer in LA, but he is some bump with no one. Maggie is confused with her relationship as well. Although, she says that she loves Lance, she has slept with 3 other men since they got married. Her latest affair was with her scuba diving instructor. She is also secretly taking birth control, when Lance believes that they are trying to get pregnant. I think the movie’s exploration into the twin’s struggles was somewhat superficial. The characters were largely impacted by their relationships to the point of wanting to end their lives again when things went wrong. Though it is realistic for someone to be impacted strongly by a relationship, such is usually the superficial problem on top of several other deeper insecurities and struggles. I wish the movie went deeper into those issues. I think that the way it is presented, it seems like being in a bad relationship causes mental illness and even suicide, whereas, again, this oversimplifies and trivializes mental illness.
Throughout the movie, Milo and Maggie start to bond again. Maggie tells Milo about her affairs and the birth control. Milo, however, keeps it hidden that he is pursuing Rich again. On halloween, the two dress up like they used to as children and go out. This is important to them because it was their favorite holiday when they were young and it was something they did with their dad. However, when Milo leaves to go to the bathroom he leaves his phone behind, and Maggie sees Rich call him. Maggie is upset. The next day, Milo suggests to Lance that Maggie might be taking medication that is making it difficult for them to get pregnant. Lance finds the hidden birth control and confronts Maggie about it. Maggie confesses that she has been cheating. She then storms outside to where Milo is and says that he ruined her marriage and to “cut deeper next time.” This devastates Milo and he starts heading back to LA. Maggie calls Milo and says, “Dad saw a way out and maybe you did too. See you later.” She then tried to drown herself in the pool where she had scuba diving lessons. Milo gets the message and quickly turns around. He races to the pool and saves Maggie. This ending was emotional and touching, however, I think it was overdramatized. It seems again like suicide is being used as a weapon and just a way out when things get tough. Though, I will not claim that suicide is never viewed or used in this way, I think it is a harmful portrayal to show in a movie; especially one that is trying to be lighthearted. I think it sends the wrong message. Though, as I say with “To the Bone,” what one sees on TV cannot cause a mental illness, it can certainly be triggering, provide false information, and potentially be one factor that pushes someone in a harmful direction. Whereas in “To the Bone,” I think the potentially triggering content was shown in a manner that was truthful and added to the understanding of eating disorders, I think the suicidal content in this movie was more for dramatic purposes.
I am surprised that I was left with a more negative than positive impression of this movie, because it was listed by NAMI as a movie that portrays mental illness well. There were things that I think were fair representations, such as the way mental illness hurts interpersonal relationships like the one between Milo and Maggie. Additionally, the movie showed how depression can manifest as self-destructive behaviors which are harder to stop than simply saying “I don’t want to do this.” Maggie hated herself for sleeping with other men and told Milo that she wanted to stop, but when she hit a low point, she was drawn right back into the destructive behavior. She would sleep with another man and feel even worse about herself after, feeding the vicious cycle. However, she was eventually able to recognize and get control over the negative cycle and stop. The movie showed that recognizing the problem is a crucial first step because destructive behaviors feed on self-loathing and denial. Overall, though, I think the movie was an oversimplified and somewhat irresponsible representation of mental illness and suicide.
Liv and Matt came into the world together. They were always together and helped each other carry the weight of their parents’ high expectations. Liv was on track to be valedictorian of their elite college prep high school. She had a good shot at any top college with Yale being her dream school. Matt was the beloved senior class president. However, with one tragic accident the twins were torn apart. Driving home from a party at the beginning of their senior year, Matt died in a car accident. The events leading up to the accident were a confusing blurr. The two went to a party at Liv’s boyfriend’s house. Matt told Liv to loosen up and have fun. He then left her to be with a girl. Flashforward and Liv is alone with her boyfriend in the bedroom. They are about to have sex, when Matt barges in and, angerly, tell Liv that it is time to go home. Liv did not understand why her brother was so anger, but assumed that it was her fault and, ultimately, blamed herself for his death. She begged him to come back, saying that they promised that they would die together. As Liv grieves, Matt starts to come back to her. First he is in her dreams- then she hears his voice. Before she knows it, she is seeing him and having conversations with him like he is really there. At first he is kind. He helps her study. He tells her that it is going to be okay. But then he turns dark. He tells her not to eat- that she needs to feed him. Liv starts sneaking her food about the backyard to feed her brother. He distracts her from her school work and, as her grades plummet, tells her that she is not good enough. Liv finds herself up all night, starving and exhausted, torturing herself to regain her place as valedictorian. Liv’s parents don’t see the way she is struggling. Her dad only cares that she has the best grades and gets into the best school. Her mom just bends to the will of her sexist and manipulative husband, and remains in denial the her daughter is slowly dying in front of her. She doesn’t step in to help her daughter until, during a Christmas party, she goes outside to see hundreds of bags of food sitting under a tree in the backyard and then looks up to she Liv standing on the ledge of her bedroom balcony. Liv was coaxed onto the ledge by the image her a brother telling her that she needs to leave and be with him- that she promised and owes it to him. Liv’s mother races to the balcony to stop Liv, and the movie flashes forward to Liv in the hospital. She is admitted to an eating disorder unit, where she continues to refuse food because her brother tells her that he needs it. At first she is in denial that she has an eating disorder. She says that she just forgot to eat. As the images and voices of her brother continue though, she becomes terrified that she is actually going to die, and she tells her doctor what is happening. It seems at this point that Liv is making a turn towards recovery. She acknowledges that her brother is not really there and that those voices are not her brother. Matt would not have wanted her to die. The movie ends in a dark manner though. Liv is having lunch out from the hospital with her boyfriend. She appears to be doing much better, but when it comes to ordering food she just orders a salad. Her boyfriend is concerned that she wasn’t making a good choice and asked if this was too much for her right now. The food comes out. Liv looks up and there is the image of her brother again, whom she claimed to not see anymore. “I’m fine,” she says.
There are things I think this movie did well, but there are also aspects that I believe are overly dramatized. Ultimately, in terms of fostering eating disorders awareness, I think the movie did a good job at giving an understanding of “the voice of the eating disorder” for someone who doesn’t understand it at all. But to anyone who does know what an eating disorder is really like, the depiction is frustrating due to its excessive personification of eating disorders. It is clear that Matt embodies the voice of the eating disorder. This gives an illustration of an idea that is often used to describe an eating disorder to loved ones and/or to people who are in denial of their disorder. The eating disorder is said to be a separate entity- a voice inside people’s head that is not their own. For me, this entity was labeled
“ED.” This separation of illness and person is helpful to (1) help people understand what eating disorder thoughts are like and (2) take away blame from the person who is struggling with an eating disorder. It also helps bring home the point that eating disorders are not a choice, and that people with eating disorders are people, not illnesses. I think, however, the physical manifestation of Liv’s eating disorder as a hallucination was too much and unrealistic. From my experience and knowledge of other people’s experiences with eating disorder thoughts- as well as depressive thoughts, compulsions, anxiety, etc.- they are not so cut and dry. It is not so easy to distinguish a “sick voice” and a “self voice.” They warp together and one of the most dangerous parts is that they start to feel like your own identity. Also, they are not so much conscious streams of thoughts like a voice inside one’s head, but more underlying and subconscious. One person I know describes it like radio static. Whereas, I see what the writers were trying to do, and I think the voice of an eating disorder is an important aspect to portray, I find that the execution gave the wrong impression that people with eating disorders are delusional and psychotic. Part of this was certainly for cinematic purposes as the movie was meant to be a psychological thriller. Additionally, I think another large misconception was given- that one must experience a traumatic episode to develop an eating disorder. The impression was given that Liv developed her eating disorder because her brother died. It is certainly the case that trauma can be a triggering event for an eating disorder, but it is not true that one must have experienced some trauma to be warranted in having the disease. I think such is an important message to give. I found that in my own experience, some of my doctors were looking for a traumatic event to pin my eating disorder on. I think doing so makes it seem more “fixable.” Maybe that is a reason why so many people blame the media for eating disorders and other mental illnesses. It gives a tangible and fixable problem. However, it ignores the deeper underlying issues.
Disfigured is a movie about an unusual friendship between a “fat girl” and a “recovering anorexic.” Moreover, as the writer/producer/director says, “It is a movie about women and weight.” Famous film writer, Glenn Gers, says he wrote Disfigured because it is a movie he wanted to see- raw, honest, and without Hollywood drama. Because of this, no one would pay for it so he self-directed and produced the film in 15 days with a crew of 6-8 people ( http://www.disfiguredmovie.com/home.html ).
The movie starts with a meeting of a fat acceptance group. The group has the purpose of changing societies’ perspective of fat people; not changing oneselves’ body. Therefore, when Lydia proposes a fat acceptance walking group, the idea is met with opposition. It is seen as a weight loss attempt. While Lydia is trying to convince people that her walking group is a good idea, a very thin women, Dacry, walks into the group. People are shocked to see Darcy and ask her what she is doing there. Darcy says that she is a recovering anorexic. She sees herself as fat and thinks that, maybe, if she accepts being fat she will not struggle with her eating disorder as much. The group members find this ridiculous and ask her to leave. Lydia, however, stands up for Darcy and convinces the group to put it to a vote. Everyone except Lydia votes that Dacry must leave. Later, Darcy reaches out to help Lydia promote her walking group. At the first group meeting, only one man, Bob, shows up to walk with Lydia. Lydia and Bob bond and talk about how hard it is for fat people to have sex, and they decide to sleep together. Darcy makes flyers for the group and, thanks to her, several more people show up at the next meeting. Lydia is confused as to why Darcy is helping her and confronts her about it. Darcy says that she just wants to help, and she admires what Lydia is doing. The two become friends.
Darcy’s, currently a realtor living alone in Venice Beach, story is explored more. Three scenes that stand out to me are an interaction with a client, a scene where she is body-checking, and her father’s birthday party. A client looks at Darcy’s body and asks what she is doing to be so skinny- what diet is she on. Darcy replies, “I starve myself.” The client reponses, “I know, me too.” Darcy laughs awkwardly. This interaction shows how extreme thinness is glorified in our society and the ignorance towards the seriousness of eating disorders. When I was sick, I was often praised for my body. I was given the idea that I was strong-willed and admirable for my ability to literary starve myself. These notions feed eating disorders, and create an environment that makes recovery more difficult. The second scene is of Darcy standing in front of a mirror, looking at all the different parts of her body. This body checking behavior is common among people with eating disorders, and it is depicted honestly in this scene. The third scene is an interaction between Darcy and her mother at Darcy’s father’s birthday party. Darcy’s mother starting slyly asking questions trying to gauge how Dracy was doing. Darcy says, “I’m eating mom. Why don’t you just come out and ask.” With eating disorders, and other mental illnesses, I think people often feel uncomfortable addressing the problem directly. The problems are seen as taboo, and it is easier to pretend that they don’t really exist.
Lydia’s struggles are also shown. She battles between wanting to accept her body for the way it is and wanting to change her body. When Bob tells her that he is getting weight loss surgery, Lydia starts wondering if she should do the same. In one scene Lydia comes home with lots of junk food which she eats alone in her kitchen. This scene shows how lonely Lydia is. She puts on a facade of being happy and really accepting her body, but in reality she feels lonely and worthless. Wanting to not be a fat girl anymore, Lydia asks Darcy to give her anorexia lessons. At first Darcy is appalled by the question, but then she agrees. Darcy buys Lydia a scale and throws out most of her food. She tells Lydia to keep track of all the calories she eats and when she feels like she is losing control to count her calories again and think about how she can cut more tomorrow. There is a scene where the two are sitting on the beach watching people walk by and commenting on how their bodies are unacceptable. Darcy says that being anorexic is a “bloodsport.” This comment stood out to me. There is a saying that with eating disorders, there is no such thing as sick enough. The only sick enough is being dead. The disease thrives on competition, and the distortion only grows, pushing the ‘ideal’ farther and farther away every time a person comes close to it.
When Lydia learns that Bob was just using her, she starts to lose control again, and she binges. Darcy decides to stay at Lydia’s house to keep her on track. At night the two of them are taking and Lydia tries to convince Darcy to just let go and go binge on fast food with her. Darcy is upset by this and leaves. Shortly after, both women start to realize how their behaviors are unhealthy. Darcy reaches back out to her doctor, and Lydia tries to start eating in a more normalized manner. After some time apart, the women meet up again and talk about how they are really feeling. They were getting caught up in food, when food was never really the problem. As difficult as it is, they need to find ways to accept who they are and love their bodies. They decide to start a body acceptance group for people of all sizes to talk about their bodies and their insecurities, and, together, start to work towards accepting and loving the bodies that allow them life.
Overall, I found this movie to be raw and honest. I was shocked by the storyline of one women teaching another to be anorexic. However, I think it was done well and showed the distortions and compulsions that hold so many people hostage. The superficial premise actually helped shed light on the deeper issues of worthlessness and loneliness that the women had in common. Outwardly, they seemed like polar opposites, but on the inside their struggles were similar. I also liked how the movie ended. It was not an epiphanic ending. Rather, the women acknowledged that the path to accepting their bodies would be long and hard. They were probably never going to completely love themselves, however, it was time to start a conversation about what makes people hate their bodies and how people can form better relationships with themselves.