Schizophrenic Movie Characters

Mental illness portrayed in cinema can affect how the world views schizophrenia

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Do movies misinform the general public about schizophrenia? Are depictions of stark raving mad characters tainting the compassion and understanding of the populous?

A recent study analyzed movies to determine if they were accurately portraying schizophrenia or misinforming the public about mental illness.

Whether they are or not depends on the audience’s perception.

"Don’t believe everything you see in the movies."

Patricia R. Owen, PhD, professor and department chair of psychology, at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, wrote an analysis of the way schizophrenia is portrayed in movies.

The question is whether schizophrenia is portrayed in movies accurately. People can make claims that movie characters are stereotypical accounts that are based on misinformation - but this is the first study to put it to the test.

Dr. Owens looked at 41 English-language movies produced between 1990 and 2010, where at least one of the main characters has schizophrenia. Two researchers watched the films separately and rated the movies based on a checklist.

The checklist assessed demographic characteristics, symptoms, stereotypes, causation and treatment for each character.

Results of the study found 42 characters, mostly white males, with schizophrenia. Delusions were the most frequently shown symptom. Next on the list were auditory and visual hallucinations.

Violent behavior was common. One-third showed homicidal tendencies, while 24 percent committed suicide. The cause of the characters schizophrenia was either biological factors or traumatic event.

Medication was stated or implied to 55 percent of the characters in the movies.

Conclusions of the study are a mixed bag.

Dr. Owens admitted that it’s difficult to say whether the portrayals are misinformed or negatively portrayed because audience interpretation is the deciding factor.

Though the more common and outwardly affecting symptoms of schizophrenia were more frequently depicted in the movies, this does not report bias or misinformation.

It could be considered a way to make the illness easily accessible to the audience based on more socially-known schizophrenic behaviors.

This study was published in the July issue of Psychiatric Services. No financial information was given and no conflicts of interest were found.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 13, 2012
Last Updated:
January 10, 2013