Mental Illness Comes Out of the Celluloid Closet


You feel invisible.  You feel like a ghost, and a ghost that nobody believes in.  There’s this sense of isolation” (Susie Bright)

There are lots of needs for art, and the greatest one is the mirror of our own lives and our own existence.  And that hunger I felt as a kid looking for gay images was to not be alone.” (Harvey Fierstein)

In many ways, the above quotes changed my life.  They are taken from the documentary The Celluloid Closet, which I first saw as a twenty-two year old closeted gay man back in September 1996 when it first aired on British TV.   This was two months before I started work as an admin assistant at the university with which I am still connected.  That six month contract lasted for nine years, before I called it a day and commenced my BA degree in 2005 at the same university.  Eight years later, I’m a few months from handing in my PhD – and a long way from that office where I used to work in the School of Computing.  Quite whether I would have handed in my notice and pursued a degree in film had I not seen The Celluloid Closet is something I shall never know, but that documentary – and, in particular, the quotes above – certainly got me interested in film history in a way that I had not been before.  While I had always liked old films, my eyes had been opened to what these films could tell us about our past (and our present), and there was a personal angle to film history: What did it mean to me?  And, as for those quotes with which I open this lengthier-than-usual post, well, they somehow described how I was feeling living in a small village, not out of the closet, not brave enough to enter a gay bar in the nearest city, and a few years before the internet became a common feature of our lives.

Recently, I was involved in a discussion on a message board about the mass shootings that took place in America last year (bear with me, this will all come together eventually).  The issues being discussed were not just ones of possible changes to gun control in America, but also about mental health issues, particularly in the young, and the part these had had in the shootings.  What became clear was that mental health problems were still heavily stigmatised, and rarely discussed, and certainly not “normalised” for the most part (in parts of the USA), and thus many people who needed help were simply not getting it due to the stigma attached to admitting they had a problem.  There have been campaigns in the UK over the last five years or so to try to get mental health issues such as depression and schizophrenia talked about more within society and to try to educate people about these problems and remove the stigma attached to them.   While things are slowly changing in the right direction, it still seems odd that I fear the reaction to telling someone that I am bipolar more than the reaction to telling them I’m gay – especially having been a teenager at a time when homosexuality was largely not accepted by the masses.  In one area we have moved on so far (things aren’t perfect, but they rarely are), but in the other we haven’t progressed a great deal since I was diagnosed back in 1995.

The comments that Susie Wright and Harvey Fierstein made in that 1996 documentary don’t really hold true any more with regards to homosexuality.  That is thanks, in part, to the rise of the home video industry and, more importantly, the introduction of the DVD – a platform far cheaper to produce than VHS tapes.  A multitude of gay-themed films are now available to us – some good, some bad, some just plain ugly.  OK, most are independent or foreign language films, but Hollywood is making headway too.  And, more importantly perhaps, we are even finding LGBT characters in films and TV shows that are not actually about being gay or lesbian.   This goes further to “normalising” homosexuality far more than a gay film that seems to consist only of gay and lesbian characters and is solely about being gay.  Take the Robin Williams vehicle The Night Listener, for example.  Here is a film in which the sexuality of the character just is; it actually has little or no relevance to the narrative.  Or how about the US TV series The United States of Tara, in which the teenaged son of the family is gay, but there is no big coming out scenes?  The family already accepts him for who he is before the first episode even starts, and his various coming of age issues are much the same as those of any other teenager, gay or straight – except that his mother has a multiple personality disorder.  Although it is worth saying that the killing off of one of the gay characters in the series was an unwelcome harking back to the Hollywood of the past where gay men just were not allowed to be happy.  It was one of the few bad moves the series made in this area, and leaves something of a bitter aftertaste simply because of this throwback to earlier times.

If homosexuality has been normalised on our screens over the last fifteen years or so, depression and mental health issues have been conspicuous by their absence.  Which brings me back to those two original quotes at the top of this post – those with mental health issues are largely still invisible in film and TV, and until recently there has certainly been no mirror images for sufferers on the screen – especially if you are young.  A number of European films come to mind – Lakki: The Boy Who Could Fly (1992), The Man Who Loved Yvenge (2008) (both Norwegian), and Presque Rien (2000) all deal with depression and other issues.  Ben X (2007) deals with autism, and this and other movies such as The Suicide Room (2011) and The Class (2007) present us with characters who suffer either from alienation or depression, or both, depending on how you read the film.

The Suicide Room is worth discussing in more detail.  This Polish film tells the story of Dominik, a closeted gay young man who is dared at a party to kiss another boy at his school.  This is videoed and posted on line, and everyone takes it in the good humour in which it was intended.  However, a couple of weeks later, the two boys are involved in a judo bout during which Dominik accidentally orgasms.  This news also hits the social media pages, but this time Dominik is ridiculed and he sinks slower into a depression that sees him seeking solace in an internet chatroom, the “suicide room” of the title.  This is quite different in style and format to the American films I’m going to discuss later, in that this is a film about teenagers but squarely aimed at adults.

But in the UK and America, depression and mental illness has been sadly absent from our screens.  But finally, I believe that is slow changing thanks to  a slow but steady stream of recent films dealing with the issue.

It’s taken long enough.  Back in 2006, an article in the Journal of Health Communication called for a collaboration between the mental health sector and the film industries in order “to counter negative portrayals of mental illness, and to explore the potential for positive portrayals to educate and inform, as well as to entertain” (Perkis, Blood, et al, 2006: 536).  However, it took until 2013 for President Obama to encourage a collaboration in America between the health sector and the media.   An article in the Hollywood Reporter quotes the president of the Entertainment Industries Council as saying “Media and entertainment professionals can play a significant role in the public’s understanding of mental health. …Inaccurate portrayals of individuals living with mental illness can fuel misconceptions that could lead to subsequent discrimination and deter individuals from seeking help for mental health challenges.”  The timing of this is not coincidental, and is clearly wrapped up in the debates that have opened up following last year’s shootings, as mentioned earlier.

But things had been moving forward anyway.  For example, Dare (2009) is an independent film dealing with both issues of sexuality and mental health.  The film follows three teenagers as their lives intertwine romantically, with the film divided into three sections, with each one devoted to the story of one of the characters.  Johnny is the “bad boy” character that is at the centre of the film, and with whom both Ben and Alexa (the other two of the trio) become involved.  What we are perhaps surprised about when it comes to Johnny’s section (the last) is that underneath the bad boy image he is actually a troubled young man who sees a psychiatrist on a regular basis.   Johnny’s “issues” are never actually spelled out to the viewer, although we are led to believe that they are related to a sense of isolation, alienation – and depression.

Only last year, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) provided us with another character, Charlie, who is suffering mental health issues following the death of his friend.  This issue bubbles beneath the surface of the film for the majority of its running time, before finally erupting in the final reel, and yet it is still dealt with in a sympathetic and realistic way.   What’s more, Charlie puts into words exactly how it feels to be depressed.  “There’s so much pain.  And I don’t know how not to notice it,” he says.  This is one of the few times as a sufferer of depression and bipolar for nearly twenty years that I have felt my own experiences portrayed accurately on screen.  Depression isn’t about being sad or unhappy, it’s about somehow being affected by the sadness and unhappiness around us, and not being able to distance ourselves from it.

Charlie in Wallflower does have a distinct reason for his problems (which I won’t go into here in case you have yet to see the film).   However, the vast majority of us suffering from clinical depression really don’t appear to have a reason for being the way we are.  It’s not because a relative passed away, or the cat got run over, or because we got bullied at school.  All of these might be triggers for periods of depression, of course.  But, if I have learned anything about the illness over the last two decades, it’s that it just is and that there is no underlying cause.

This is where It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) fits in.   In this fine film, Craig, a young man played by Keir Gilchrist (who, coincidentally played the gay son in United States of Tara), checks himself into a psychiatric ward when he fears that he might harm himself.  He thinks he will be in and out by the next day and back at school, but he soon finds out that he has to be admitted for a week – and also that the juvenile ward is closed, and so he will be kept in the adult ward.  There are some parts of the film that are slightly hard to believe.  For example, as a depressed teenager, Craig seems remarkably at ease in social situations and makes friends within the ward very easily.  However, this is a film – and ninety minutes watching a boy who doesn’t speak to anyone would make for relatively dull viewing.

What I found most remarkable watching the film from the viewpoint of someone who has suffered from bipolar for eighteen years, is that Craig isn’t depressed for any particular reason.  Sure, he has stresses from home and school and so on, but these are never really presented to us as the reason for his depression. He is simply a clinically depressed teenager – and, while he will have ups and downs, it’s something he will probably have to deal with for the rest of his life.  From this point of view, the film is something of a revelation.  After watching the film, my reaction was “At Last!”  Finally, my own experiences were being represented.

Despite these fine films, and better attempts at representing the realities or depression (or, at least, my reality), there is still a long way to go in both educating the public and making sure that these characters are the norm and not the exception.   Funny Story was well-received by the mental health sector, and praised for its portrayals of both patients and treatments, and yet the message somehow still failed to sink in in some quarters.   For example, A G Scott wrote in the New York Times review that “this hospital, Argeron, feels like an oasis where the sad can congregate in safety and do their best to make one another laugh”.   Despite watching the film, Scott has still come out thinking that depressed people are simply unhappy and can be cheered up with a good joke book.

Will films like  It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and other films covering these issues such as Dare and Some Day This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2011) (and a TV series such as The United States of Tara)  make a difference on how teenagers view depression and other mental illnesses?  Well, it’s hard to say, but it is even more unlikely that these issues will be discussed and somehow de-stigmatised if they remain buried and not talked about or portrayed in the media.  These are certainly not issues that are going to go away – but they are also issues that are difficult to include in films and TV series – how does one approach depression, portray it realistically, and yet also make it entertaining?  Thankfully, It’s Kind of a Funny Story manages to do this, but it is not in the majority.  To see the other side of the coin, check out the aforementioned tedious Lakki:  The Boy Who Could Fly.  The fact that this is about the only major issue affecting teenagers that a series like Glee has yet to cover in any depth suggests that are difficulties in doing so.

These are difficult issues.  But thankfully, slowly but surely, they are being portrayed in films and TV series aimed at young people – and that can only be a good thing.  However, we are at a crossroads.  This year has seen two contrasting TV series shown in America, both dealing with mental illnesses.  On the one hand we have Bates Motel, detailing the formative years of Norman Bates (although set in the present day), which deals with Norman’s character and his mental health issues in a sympathetic way – despite the fact he murders at regular intervals.  On the other hand, we have American Horror Story: Asylum, set during the early 1960s, which portrays the inmates of the asylum as a bunch of almost inhuman nutcases, and those treating them as sex-obsessed psychopaths who may or may not been involved in the running of the concentration camps during World War II.    While both of these programmes are horror stories, and not necessarily intended to be realistic, the likelihood is that they will be seen by more people than who saw a sympathetic portrayal in Wallflower or Funny Story, and therefore continue the misinformation that already stigmatises those with mental health issues.  We have come a long way in the last few years, but there is still a long way to go.


This article was published on 22 February, 2013, and updated on July 2nd, 2013.


One comment on “Mental Illness Comes Out of the Celluloid Closet

  1. Nice post. Knowing what a destructive influence depression and other mental illness can have on life, it is impossible to explain to people exactly why it is one can be depressed on any given day. Cheers, Stephen

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