Welcome back to Part II of our discussion on Schizophrenia. In Part I, we defined the illness and how a real life person may present in a mental health clinic or hospital. Today, the discussion will focus on how the illness is presented in film and other works of fiction.
One of the great things about writing fiction is the freedom to create a world or fit facts in any way, shape or form you choose. If your world building is done in a credible way, readers will go along with your story without question.
However, there should be a certain level of caution when one factors in factual data. You want to get it straight. Particularly in the case of mental illness, why ignore the authenticity of your characters? We want to emotionally hook readers into our stories, so that they follow through to The End. We don’t want to run the risk of alienating informed readers or adding to the negative stigma of mental illness.
Misconception #1: the use of the label schizophrenia designates all mental illness. It also implies the crazy of crazies. Typically when we see this label, the person is presented as dangerous, unpredictable, “mad”, deranged. The writers, in the hunt for dramatic effect, fail to take into account that schizophrenia is a specific disorder with a special disease process. Rarely do people who suffer with this condition, in this day and age of psychotropic medications and advanced behavior treatment strategies, do we see people roaming the streets foaming at the mouth.
But the label also gets applied to any behavior that falls outside the norm. In the movie Benny and Joon (1993), Joon is described as schizophrenic and was reported to have a whole menu of symptoms including hallucinations, explosive outbursts, panic attacks and inability for independent living. In the movie, we see that she has an interest in other people, she has the capacity to form intimate relationships and seeks them out. We see evidence of the love between brother and sister throughout the movie. She is an artist and creates beautiful paintings. She also displays exceptional insight into the people around her. In the real world, these factors would probably rule out schizophrenia and would lead a clinician to conclude either Asperger’s Disorder or a type of Anxiety Disorder.
Misconception #2: Hallucinations do not define schizophrenia. As mentioned in the previous article, schizophrenia is a disorder of thought, it is a debilitating brain condition; and hallucinations may or may not be apart of the presenting picture. There are at least a half dozen other conditions in which a person also hallucinates including drug induced hallucinations, severe depression or anxiety or trauma-induced psychosis, among others. Oh, and try not sleeping for several days, weeks or months on end and “see” what happens next, Fight Club (1999).
Misconception #3: All schizophrenics look alike. Schizophrenia is a condition with 5 sub-categories including Paranoid, Catatonic, Residual, Disorganized and Undifferentiated. Each sub-category includes the thought disorder however, the experience of hallucinations, illusions, delusions, anhedonia, odd or unusual behavior will vary. The ability to function day to day also varies depending on the sub-category and the prognosis, the prediction of recovery, is also dependent on the sub-category.
These factors make it difficult or challenging to accurately portray schizophrenia in fiction. Some writers, again for the sake of dramatic effect will toss in all the symptoms and usually end of creating an inaccurate, annoying disaster, Me, Myself and Irene (2000).
Writers have incorporated schizophrenia in their works of fiction in at least two ways. First, the storyline is taken from the point of view of the person with schizophrenia, giving readers and movie-goers a peak into the experience, A Beautiful Mind (2001), Donnie Darko (2001). Other writers have presented the illness from the point of view of outsiders, family, co-workers, community members, Through a Glass Darkly (1961). More often than not, the person is perceived as deranged or dangerous, The Caveman’s Valentine, worst case scenario, or odd and socially isolated.
So, have you written stories or a novel featuring a character with mental illness? How did this character advance your plot? What were your challenges?
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this discussion of schizophrenia. Please come back next week when we’ll begin a discussion about Dissociative Disorders, including Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder).