Schizophrenia in film: scary rabbits to blackboard scribbles


Film and television can often be particularly powerful when it comes to shaping people’s opinions on particular subjects. So, 50 years on from our inception in 1972, we started a conversation on our social media channels about how the framing of schizophrenia has changed in the box office and what impact that has on people that experience the condition. 

We asked you which films you most associate with schizophrenia and how they portray the condition. From A Beautiful Mind to Donnie Darko, here are three common themes that we noticed across any of the films mentioned: 

Representation is a bit vague 

From your answers, it was clear that even when a film does depict someone living with a mental illness, it’s rare that the condition is specifically named. For example, Donnie Darko’s protagonist, played by Jake Gyllenhall, sees a psychiatrist and experiences some of the symptoms we know to be true of schizophrenia, such as auditory and physical hallucinations. However, it is never specifically stated in the film that he lives with schizophrenia and the whole crux of the film can be interpreted in a very different way. It transcends between a time-travel cult classic and a lived experience account of the symptoms of schizophrenia. 

Donnie Darko was mentioned numerous times on Facebook, including by Karleen, who said “Donnie Darko made me see schizophrenia properly… It didn't perpetuate stigma and most people actually struggled to see what the movie was actually about because they couldn't understand it but it was a hit movie and those who understood it were like "finally" although [they may have found it] incredibly heartbreaking.” 

It was a similar situation for Fight Club, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Pete on Facebook said “I think Fight Club was schizophrenia, right? I don't think it perpetuated stigma (and actually think it helped people without insight to see it a bit more clearly). The hook as a viewer of Fight Club was you had to make that determination [that he experienced schizophrenia] in order to put the plot together.” 

This lack of naming the diagnosis probably points to a lack of understanding of the condition itself, relying on fall back generalisations. Instead, we need clarity on what the signs and symptoms are.  

Cause for optimism 

Although it’s clear that the film industry could and should be doing better in terms of their portrayal of characters living with schizophrenia, there was some cause for optimism among your answers about which films you associate with the condition. One such film which came up a lot as a positive depiction of schizophrenia was A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe.  

Shann, on Instagram, said, “A Beautiful Mind is so well depicted and an amazing film that is based on a true story.” And Helen echoed that feeling on Facebook:

“I liked A Beautiful Mind, even though it did sugar coat the illness a bit, it did a good job of showing the delusional side of the illness and the fact that when ill with schizophrenia, you are unaware you are ill and think that what you perceive to be happening is real. It also shows in the second half of the film what it is to care for someone suffering with the illness.”

Other films mentioned as having a positive influence on society’s view of schizophrenia were The Other Side of the Underneath (1972), Revolution #9 (2001) and Donnie Darko (2001). Via Instagram, Stacey said “Donnie Darko is such a great film. Depicts the condition in a darker and more intense way.” 

More work to be done 

While the discussion across both Facebook and Instagram was, on the whole, quite optimistic, there is certainly more work to be done to portray schizophrenia accurately. Some of you were quick to point out that there is too much violence when it comes to characters experiencing schizophrenia. On Instagram, Sophie said “All movies that feature people living with schizophrenia are portrayed as dangerous, and I hate it.” Films need to have an interesting storyline, we get that. But do people living with schizophrenia always have to have a violent dark side?  

Another regular theme through your answers was that films only cater to characters living with mental illness who have some kind of extraordinary talent. In some ways, that’s great. It’s useful to see positive stories of people making a difference. But, in reality, for many people living with severe mental illness, our biggest battle might be finishing our studies, living independently or finding a job we love. We still deserve to be celebrated. And we definitely still deserve to be represented! Morgan spoke about this on Facebook. He called it the “romanticisation” of mental illness:

“I have a problem with the romanticisation of mental illness and this notion that it must be tied to some sort of exceptional brilliance, and then, only then, might it be deemed acceptable or at least tolerable.” - Morgan.

So, there you have it. Although there is cause for optimism, there is still lots more work to be done.  We’re going to leave you with this thought from Morgan, which summarises the state of play perfectly:  

“The film industry has a role to play in fighting stigma… We need to show that those with schizophrenia are people too, with meaningful and relatable thoughts, feelings, and opinions. They have just as much to offer as anyone else. In fact, there's a lot more that connects us than sets us apart. We need more films that show this and that accurately portray schizophrenia so that people can think about how they would react and feel themselves if faced with the same experiences.” 

Well said, Morgan. 

National Schizophrenia Awareness Day on 25 July shines a light on the everyday challenges faced by hundreds of thousands of people living with a diagnosis of schizophrenia in the UK and millions more worldwide. You can help us make a difference by sharing our content on Facebook and Twitter.