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Sincerely Stefanie: Upcoming M. Night Shyamalan Movie "Split" Vilifies Mental Illness

I graduated from Ohio University, which is located in Athens, Ohio, a town about an hour or so southeast of the state capital of Columbus.

Located a short walk from the main campus is the former Athens Mental Health Center, also known as The Ridges. The vast 1,000 acre hospital complex has a lurid history, known for experimental procedures such as the lobotomy. At its peak, the hospital treated more than 1,800 patients.

I had the opportunity as a reporter for the college newspaper to visit the present-day psychiatric center in Athens, which is now known as Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare. I had truly never experienced the gravity of the effect of mental illness on a human being until this day.  

Mental illness isn’t “creepy” or “cool,” nor should it be marketed or portrayed as such. America’s misguided curiosity increases when movies such as M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming thriller “Split” are released.

The majority of severely mentally ill people cannot perform basic day-to-day functions such as hygiene, house care and basic job tasks. Many of those who experience a mental illness lack the ability to form social relationships and are viewed as outcasts or are not able to secure a job because of it.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that between 20 percent to 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“Split” is loosely based on Billy Milligan, who was one of Athens Mental Health Center’s most notorious patients. Milligan was one of the first people to successfully argue a not guilty by reason of insanity defense, proving diagnosed multiple personality disorder.

Doctors discovered 23 different personalities, ranging from a 3-year-old girl named Christene to a Serbian tough guy named Ragen Vadascovinich. In “Split,” the main antagonist, showing 23 distinct personalities, kidnaps three girls from a store parking lot, leading them into madness as his mental illness begins to take over.

Films such as “Split” only work to enforce the stigma of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It’s no surprise that people are drawn into to these movies; the whole subject of multiple personalities is a fascinating one as doctors research methods to diagnose and treat those with mental illnesses so they may return to a functioning, happy life.

Instead, with movies such as “Split,” those with mental illness are viewed as weird, outcasts, dangerous or just another homeless person who made a series of bad decisions.

M. Night Shyamalan, unfortunately, has done nothing to reduce the stigma attached with mental illness. In fact, his last movie “The Visit,” also does nothing but perpetuate it as a plot device, a form of entertainment served up with a bag of popcorn.

The right thing to do, in my opinion, would be for M. Night Shyamalan to donate a portion of the profit of what surely will be a multi-million box office hit to an organization such as National Alliance on Mental Illness.

At the very least, a disclaimer should be shown at the beginning or end of the movie, possibly something along the lines of:

“About 10 million adults, or 1 in 25 of the U.S. population, experience a serious mental illness that interferes with or limits one or more major life activities, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To learn more, visit www.NAMI.org.”

As a moviegoer, I don’t blame you for wanting to view “Split”. I admit, I am interested in how accurate dissociative identity disorder will be portrayed. However, I do hope that you will perform research about mental illness and tell your co-workers, family and friends about what you discover. Learn about the signs. If you see someone struggling, ask them if they need help.

Become an advocate to reduce the stigma.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Oct 27, 2016

If I didn't know better (and I don't, not really) I'd say this article was part of the marketing campaign for the movie. It certainly makes a compelling case to at least watch it online when it's available. That's saying a lot as I gave up on the director after the "Ron Howard's Daughter Won't Get Out Of My Swimming Pool" movie.

Nearly every childhood story, even the not scary ones, centers around the differences between society and at least one central character. It works so well for kids because everything else they know is learned from comparing a known to an unknown. As adults it's no different. Our lives are entirely defined by the differences in ourselves and others.

When differences between society and an individual are extreme, especially in an otherwise "typical" Human, it's actually strange behavior to not call attention to the differences. It's a natural response and is largely responsible for that feeling you get when you know you're in a potentially bad situation. It's the instinct that lets you identify suspicious behavior so you can respond in a way that keeps you not chained to a radiator in a Brooklyn maintenance room.

Because it's a universal Human behavior, pointing out differences, especially extreme differences, makes for great story material. If someone can turn that material into a paycheck then so what? I don't know a single mental health professional who protests getting paid to point out differences in people.

In fact, the value of a mental health professionals opinion, the books they write and the amounts paid for conference speeches they make are determined by how extreme the differences they identify are. The same is true for how extreme their treatments of those differences are.

When they're in school, how many soon to be mental health professionals picture themselves as Xanax vending machines who are only there to satisfy Federal controlled substance regulations? Not many I'd wager. Identifying and describing some previously unidentified difference or treatment of a difference is where most hope to be one day. It may even be a truly altruistic desire, but I bet they'll take the checks from the insurance companies and textbook publishers. What do you think?

Seems to me that instead of vilifying instinctive behavior in pointing out extremes there's a lot more value for all concerned in reducing the stigma of seeking the treatment/counseling of mental health professionals. When someone shoots a bunch of random people the headlines in a day or two will say things like "Army gunman saw psychiatrist" or "Shooter had a history of depression". How many homeless people were prevented from seeking basic mental health treatment because even family members equate treatment/counseling with one step from being the next headline? Had they not been left to their own devices that devolved into self medicating behaviors and ultimately a disconnect from society they might never have been homeless.

I think now is a good time to reflect and ponder the Streisand Effect and how easily one can create the very thing they hope to prevent. I'm in Cleveland most of November if you want to catch a movie.

on Oct 27, 2016

"Because it's a universal Human behavior, pointing out differences, especially extreme differences, makes for great story material. If someone can turn that material into a paycheck then so what? I don't know a single mental health professional who protests getting paid to point out differences."

Unfortunately, M. Night is not a mental health professional who is paid to point out differences. He is a Hollywood director. What he is producing is not a documentary; it's there to be a "psychological thriller" or "horror" movie meant to entertain, not inform.

Most mental health professionals aren't in the field so they can write a book that will be made into a Hollywood hit and make tons of money; they are there to help people. I also add it's a generalization to say that mental health professionals end up being "Xanax vending machines," and most do adhere to ethical practices. In my opinion, performing research and writing a textbook about their findings only helps the cause.

I don't believe this falls into the "Streisand Effect." I never said to censor the movie or prevent people from watching it; I simply said that people should be more cognizant of movies such as "Split" that work against the cause. For people that don't do their research before going to a movie with mental illness as the main plot device, they might get a false understanding about what mental illness really entails: the homelessness, the hopelessness and the failure to provide adequate treatment options to these individuals.

on Nov 28, 2016

Stefanie,
thanks for your thoughtful article. Great points.
We could do better as a people to help those with mental illness and to have some compassion / understanding.

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EHS OutLoud blog provides a candid look at health and safety issues both at work and at home.

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Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is editor-in-chief of EHS Today magazine, a Penton Media Inc. publication. She has been writing about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990. She has been...

Stefanie Valentic

Stefanie Valentic is an associate editor for EHS Today magazine, a Penton Media Inc. publication.  A native of Cleveland, Ohio, she has been in B2B publishing for eight years. Her work has...
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