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 Promoting 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 studied a lot of movies and TV shows together. I have come to believe that compelling representations of mental health are often the result of a complex interaction of accuracy and other factors.
For example, in the “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am” episode of the Amazon series “Modern Love,” Ann Hathaway’s character—who, we discover, suffers from bipolar disorder—is seen going through life moving as if she were in a brightly colored musical. However, suddenly she falls into 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’re in your manic phase. This is certainly inaccurate. You also don’t suddenly fall into depression; it is a gradual process. But, boy, does it make effective TV and contribute to our understanding of bipolar disorder.
In darker terrain, films like “Fight Club” and “Psycho” do not accurately portray dissociative identity disorder (DID). In fact, IT might not even technically exist, so how can it be accurately depicted? Still, being cut off from a 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 touch their audiences deeply.
I have 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 may offer 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 motherhood for a child with special needs, repressed grief and trauma caused by racism or genocide. Yet they can also be exploitative and use trauma to entertain.
Back to “Dahmer,” which went to great lengths to be accurate in its portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer’s psychology. But still there were questions: What is the motivation to make the series now? And what is the impact on the victims’ families and the LGBTQIA community? And isn’t this series further isolating those with mental health concerns by choosing to portray such a violent and disturbed individual?
It is significant that in PPSL we deliberately 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 portrayal, even if it is accurate, especially if my characters are based on real people? Who is being helped? Who got hurt? Does what I portray help normalize mental health or further isolate 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 depicted in “Dahmer”), you should be encouraged to present the most nuanced portrayals when 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” showed, you should know that accurate portrayals alone do not necessarily lead to the kind of positive change you may desire. Instead, it may require 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 Promoting Mental Health via Cinematic Arts at Northwestern.