How Games, TV and Film Get Schizophrenia Wrong

Mental health often gets a bad reputation from the media. When I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I had no idea how misrepresented and misunderstood the condition really was. The symptoms of schizophrenia are exaggerated to an extreme degree in movies and shows alike. The portrayal of schizophrenics as violent killers is incredibly damaging to people like me who actually suffer from the disease.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if not for the fact that the majority of people actually believe the exaggerations to be true. These misunderstandings cause dangers outside of entertainment. This misinformed fear can actually incite unprovoked violence toward the schizophrenic sufferer. In my experience, these stereotypes add confusion to an already difficult struggle.

Perpetuating the Stigma of Violence

It pains me to watch games where hallucinations become an easy plot point to justify violence. The connection between mental illness and violence is more likely to be an act of discrimination than psychosis. That means I’m more likely to be a victim of violence than an offender. Examples like Lynch from the game Kane & Lynch: Dead Men give people the impression that schizophrenia leads to violent behavior — as if I were like Lynch, hallucinating everyday people into threatening images and suddenly attack. Or like Harman Smith, from the game Killer7, I could suddenly manifest killing personalities. In real life, I’d be more likely to run away and end up hurting myself instead.

Image Source: Mindy Fisher (CC by 2.0)

Hallucinations are more commonly voices or random noises that aren’t really there. The stereotype often includes a voice telling someone to hurt people. However, that kind of persistent hallucination is very rare. Which leads me to the next harmful assumption.

Treating Schizophrenia as a Catch-All

The idea that hallucinations or delusions lead to split personalities and mood swings is very common. It’s also completely false. Movies like Fight Club and Of Two Minds combine mental illnesses like dissociative personality disorder or bipolar disorder with schizophrenia. While it is certainly possible to suffer from more than one diagnosis, confusing schizophrenia with bipolar disorder dilutes the truth about both diseases.

There is some overlap in the physical brain structure of both schizophrenic and bipolar patients. However, there are important key differences that separate the two. For starters, schizophrenia does not involve manic episodes. What bothers me most about this misunderstanding is that medicating schizophrenia has nothing to do with mood. A missed dose isn’t going to send someone into a manic rage or on a killing spree.

Dismissing the Possibility of Recovery

Media also depicts serious psychological disorders as permanent bars to being productive members of society. Even with the medication, some issues are incurable. Incurable doesn’t mean untreatable. Some people have a mild form of the disorder and can get by with therapy, others don’t take well to any medications available. Most are involved in a lifelong struggle to live out their lives as best as they can.

It’s true that sometimes a visit to a mental health facility could be necessary for a short while. In extreme cases, this visit may end up as the only permanent solution possible. A majority of those with schizophrenia are able to avoid long-term stays and hold down a job, a home and a life. The illness may be incurable, but it isn’t hopeless.

Setting High Expectations

Due to the movie A Beautiful Mind, some opinions have changed to assume the non-violent schizophrenic must be a genius. Somehow, they were so blessed with intelligence the brain physically couldn’t contain itself and caused this disease. There are two things wrong with that. First, schizophrenia isn’t caused by something the brain is capable of doing without the disease. It’s primarily a genetic predisposition, altered by environmental factors. Without the genetic aspect, people aren’t likely to become schizophrenic.

Second, it assumes a mental illness must have a positive side of being smarter. I certainly wish I were, but the truth is I’m just like everyone else as far as intelligence goes. Not all autistic children are child prodigies, and not all non-violent schizophrenics are geniuses.

Creating Stigma Against Seeking Help

Through all of the stigma and stereotypes, being afraid to get help is the worst influence the media has over mental illnesses. Being labeled with schizophrenia or any mental illness seems like a social death sentence. Many suffer needlessly alone out of fear they will be judged or discriminated if they seek therapy.

The sad truth is, if the diagnosis were broadcast, they may be right. The media continues to portray schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions in such negative ways. People at large continue to misunderstand these illnesses. However, times are changing. Nobody should have to cope with these conditions alone and in the dark. The label isn’t stamped on your forehead, so getting help isn’t about being branded. It’s about healing and treating problems so you can have a better life. If you’re unsure whether you need help or not, this article may help.

Wrapping Up

At the end of the day, I have learned to live with my illness. Sometimes I feel powerless against the entertainment industry’s misuse of my condition. However, I find it best to focus on educating others rather than wallowing in hopelessness.

Let’s just remember that it’s all fiction. Real life is usually very different from what’s on the screen.

Mike Jones is a diagnosed schizophrenic. Ever since he got the news, Mike tried to learn as much as he can about this disease, about how the brain works, and about how he can help others suffering from a mental illness. Besides being a healthy living enthusiast, Mike loves comic books, watches every Marvel movie at least 3 times, and tries troubleshooting every electronic device he can find in his home.