Many believe that the portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer in the Netflix series “Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story” is accurate. But is accuracy enough when it comes to portraying mental health conditions on screen?
As director of the new Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab for the Promotion of Mental Health via Cinematic Arts at Northwestern University (PPSL), I have hosted many conversations about film and mental health with guests drawn from psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, film studies, religious studies and Hollywood, and we have studied many movies and TV shows together. I’ve come to believe that compelling representations of mental health are often the result of a complex interaction of accuracy and other factors.
For example, the psychiatrist and PPSL Board Member Crystal T. Clark, MD introduced me to the “Take me as I am, Whoever I am” episode of the Amazon series “Modern Love,” in which Ann Hathaway’s character — who, we discover, suffers from bipolar disorder — is seen moving through life as if she were in a brightly colored musical. Suddenly though, she falls to bed in depression and can barely keep the date she made. No, crowds of people don’t dance with you in the street when you are in your manic stage. That’s definitely inaccurate. Also, you don’t suddenly fall into depression; it’s a gradual process. But, boy, does it make for effective TV and adds to our understanding of bipolar disorder.
In darker terrain, films like “Fight Club” and “Psycho” do not accurately depict dissociative identity disorder (DID). In fact, DID might not even technically exist, so how can it be portrayed accurately? Still, being cut off from part of your consciousness is a real experience (if not as extreme as what we see depicted). And these films are undoubtedly influential works of cinema that profoundly affect their audiences.
I’ve come to believe that compelling representations of mental health are often the result of a complex interaction of accuracy and other factors.
Some horror films can present the most accurate portraits of mental health we’ve seen — from “The Babadook” to “Get Out” to “La Llorona.” Such works accurately highlight the isolation of mothering a child with special needs, repressed grief, and trauma caused by racism or genocide. Yet horror can also be exploitative and use trauma to entertain.
Back to “Dahmer,” which has taken great pains to be accurate in its portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer’s psychology. But still, there have been questions: What is the motivation for making the series now? And what is the impact on the victims’ families and the LGBTQIA community? And doesn’t this series further isolate those with mental health concerns by choosing to depict such a violent and disturbed individual?
Significantly, in PPSL, we purposely expose student screenwriters and filmmakers to as many voices and perspectives as possible. They are encouraged to decide for themselves: Is accuracy the most important aspect? When does creative license trump accuracy? What are the ethics of my depiction, even if it is accurate, especially when my characters are based on real people? Who is helped? Who is hurt? Is what I’m portraying helping to normalize mental health or further isolating those with mental health concerns? Ultimately, what is my goal as a writer and filmmaker, and what techniques do I feel comfortable using?
Bottom line: If your goal is to normalize mental health conditions, whether bipolar disorder, DID, or sociopathy (as is portrayed in “Dahmer”), you should be encouraged to present the most nuanced depictions whenever you can and to keep the question: “Is my portrayal accurate?” always on the table. But at the same time and, perhaps ironically, as “Dahmer” has shown, you should know accurate depictions alone do not necessarily lead to the kind of positive change you may desire. Instead, it may take more reflection, art and innovation.
David E. Tolchinsky is a professor of Radio/Television/Film in the School of Communication and director of the Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab for the Promotion of Mental Health via Cinematic Arts at Northwestern.