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This year, Hollywood made major strides in recognizing the importance of mental health through the accurate portrayal of psychiatric disorders in film. Reese Witherspoon gave a riveting performance in Wild as a woman healing from the emotional trauma of losing her mother by walking the Pacific Coast Trail and reconnecting with herself. Whiplash showed the stress that’s an inevitable part of striving to be the best, and the strong impact teachers can have on their students — for better or worse. In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed genius code breaker Alan Turing in a way that showed just how isolating genius can be. Meanwhile, The Theory of Everything depicted not only how ALS has affected Stephen Hawking, but also the emotional burden on his wife and family. For many, movies are the first vehicle through which they see and begin to understand mental health issues, which is why it is so important that these films reflect reality.
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More than 15 million American children live with a psychiatric or learning disorder. That’s more than the number of children affected by leukemia, diabetes and AIDS combined. Yet historically, Hollywood has rarely told these stories, and when it has, they have often been painted as terrifying or laughable. Thankfully, this is changing.
I am thrilled to see Hollywood creating more and more films over the last five years that accurately portray different types of mental illness and hardship. From Silver Linings Playbook to The King’s Speech, these films are making a real difference in how the public views and comprehends mental health.
Mental health is often misunderstood, but it doesn’t have to be. Accurate portrayals of mental illnesses such as autism or bipolar disorder in the media help the general public better understand the reality behind these diseases. One in five children copes with a psychiatric or learning disorder. Yet parents who notice signs of psychiatric or learning disorders in their children wait, on average, two years to get help for them. There are various reasons for this — parents are scared, they hope their son or daughter will outgrow it, or they think their child is just a late developer. But a major reason people hesitate to get help is because of the stigma attached to mental illness. The fact is, mental illness is real, common and treatable. That’s where films like this year’s Oscar nominees come in.
These films can change people’s minds about mental health and learning disabilities. Though we still have a long way to go when it comes to ending stigma and raising awareness, these films provide a good start. My hope is that as more and more of these stories are told through notable and award-winning movies, parents will feel more comfortable talking to other parents, educators, or health professionals about their children’s mental health issues.
It is vital that people be open and knowledgeable about mental health, and much of this begins with what we see in film, television and the media around us.
I applaud the Academy for drawing attention to these important issues, and I look forward to seeing many more films that accurately portray the difficulties, triumphs and overall journeys associated with mental health.
Dr. Koplewicz is the founder and president of The Child Mind Institute, the only independent nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to transforming mental health care for children.
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