In general, mental health issues do not get a great treatment on film. In the Hollywood la-la-land of clichés, mental illness gets grouped into one of three camps: the heart-rending, obstacle-overcoming Academy Award favourite (guaranteed to be played by a red carpet stalwart – think Kate Winslet’s turn as Holocaust nurse in Extras for inspiration, or just watch Rain Man), the disturbed, twisted psycho (think Hannibal, think “here’s Johnny”), or the comedic token ‘bit mad’ character (Napoleon Dynamite, Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, though that was probably more than just ‘a bit’ mad…)
It isn’t often that a nuanced depiction of mental health is portrayed on screen. Issues are misunderstood, exaggerated and used as plot device. Maybe this isn’t surprising in a world that so often misunderstands or marginalises issues related to mental health. If the greatest killer in the United Kingdom to males under 35, more so than coronary heart disease, is suicide, we clearly have a problem that we are not addressing. Could part of the problem be the messages being proclaimed loud and clear from television and cinema screens that mental illness is a case of horror, pity or hilarity?
In Edinburgh, from the 1st of October, a series of films will be trying in some way to challenge these misconceptions that swarm around mental health, as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. Now in its eighth year, this hugely diverse festival, which spans venues across Scotland and includes visual art, literature and theatre as well as film, presents a wide range of concepts surrounding mental health, often created by artists with experience of mental issues. The relationship between creativity and the mind – a relationship that is constantly speculated about, often involving the familiar banners of ‘creative genius’ and ‘tortured artist’ – is explored in every piece. These films are art in their own right, but also question the use of art. Can the creative arts promote mental health and wellbeing? Can art or film be a tool for social justice?
Social stigma is being given the silver screen treatment. This year especially, the festival aims to redress the Hollywood balance that all too often associates mental ill health with disempowerment. This year the theme is ‘Power’. Some pieces explicitly deal with the loss of power (real or socially imagined) that accompanies mental illness and the contrasting empowerment gained through creativity. A key film from the Edinburgh programme (mainly screened at the Filmhouse Cinema) is Mars Project, which examines schizophrenia through the seemingly unlikely realm of Hip Hop. Following Hip Hop artist Khari ‘Conspiracy’ Stewart, who sees the voices in his head not as a sickness but a gift, one that grants him artistic inspiration, this film raises controversial, frequently silenced, questions about how we define sickness and when we see the line between musical genius and madness as having slipped.
One in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in any given year. A study in 2013 found that one in five students see themselves as struggling with their mental health. Paranoia, depression, anxiety, or any other kind of mental difficulty are not rare exceptions to some kind of mental ‘norm’, they are part of the majority’s life experience. If other issues highlighted by the film festival are taken into account – immigration, conflict situations, memory loss or addiction for example – then the relevance of these stories only grows. These are diverse, challenging, affecting, interesting and profoundly nuanced pieces. They are human stories and they are powerful.