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New film The Voices and Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary reinforce the stereotype that people with schizophrenia are dangerous
It is argued that no publicity is bad publicity when it comes to raising awareness of an issue. But recent portrayals on people living with schizophrenia cast some doubt on this theory. The Voices, a black comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, currently in cinemas, has drawn fierce criticism from mental health campaigners. The movie portrays a murderer who is instructed to kill by the voices in his head, more specifically his talking cat. This film joins a long line of inaccurate and misleading film portrayals – who can forget Alphabet Killer; The Butcher Boy; Me, Myself and Irene; or Psychosomatic to name but a few?
At the same time as this film airs in our multiplexes, the BBC is broadcasting the latest documentary from Louis Theroux – the second part of a two-part programme airs on Sunday. It explores life in an Ohio state psychiatric hospital, where inmates have been declared innocent of crimes by reason of insanity and are being held until declared safe both to themselves and wider society. One of Theroux’s main subjects, Jonathan, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, killed his father. Another, Judith, who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, refuses to acknowledge that she stabbed a woman on a bus.
Theroux approaches the subject matter with his known warmth, finding humour where he can. In doing so he raises important questions about the incarceration of people with mental health problems and the impact of potential over medicalisation. But he also by default reinforces the stereotype that people with schizophrenia are dangerous.
I don’t believe in censorship. There is clearly space for such documentaries, and albeit less clearly films like The Voices – but there also needs to be a reality check: a recent study of more than 40 films released between 1990 and 2010 found that over 80% of main characters with a diagnosis of schizophrenia displayed violent behaviour and nearly a third engaged in homicidal behaviour. Let’s put this in context, schizophrenia may not be regarded as a common diagnosis, but there are approximately 220,000 of us in the UK living with it; if a third of us really were killers, that’s a body count Quentin Tarantino would be proud of.
I’ve been living with my diagnosis of schizophrenia for over 35 years now. I got it when I was a teenager. It wasn’t my first diagnosis but it was the one that stuck. When I first got it, I thought my life was over.
I wasn’t alone in thinking that. One of the things that struck me most was the low expectations that followed. This was particularly apparent among healthcare professionals; all they saw was a label – the person I used to be, or might become, vanished. If enough people, particularly professionals, treat you like a lost cause, then sooner or later you end up believing it. I was fortunate that people who really understood my experience still expected me to achieve things. One in particular persuaded me to get involved in a local support organization, expecting me to get on and do things for myself and others rather than becoming a passive patient.
Fortunately I had friends who believed in the old me. I also developed new friendships with people, many of whom had shared my experiences of psychiatric care. Spending time with people who shared my experience, but had survived and thrived in spite of it, was an inspiration and many of these people remain good friends to this day. Not all my friends were able to cope with me and sometimes I felt very lonely and isolated, but there were times when it was only my friends that kept me going.
Attitudes towards treatments were often unhelpful. It should be simple, the treatments either help or they don’t. If they do, that’s good. People should have access to the best available; if they don’t, it’s no one’s fault and treatments that don’t work shouldn’t be forced on people. Self-help, self-management and peer support are starting to help a lot of people. They have helped me and have given me the ability to help others.
My work has always been important to me, both before my time working in mental health and since. It has enabled me to take my experience of mental ill-health and use it to help others. I have had the opportunity to meet many people who have been directly affected by mental ill-health and still achieved great things.
The people I care about, the people who matter, don’t see a diagnosis, they see a person. This is a right we should afford all people living with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
by: David Crepaz-Keay