Mental illness is one of those issues that not even smart people have a good grasp of. So we probably shouldn't be surprised that Hollywood's treatment of it is about as informed and respectful as showing up drunk to a stranger's funeral and crapping in the casket.
From serial killer movies to sappy mental hospital dramas, Hollywood uses mental illness as a convenient plot point, often forgetting to do even five minutes of Googling on the subject first. As a result we get things like...
#6. The Magic Key/Instant Cure
On the Season 6 premiere of House, our hero discovers that a catatonic patient is constantly staring at something in the nurses' office. Anyone without House's keen intellect would've assumed that "something" was a ham sandwich, but House discovers that it's actually a music box which, when played, brings this particular patient back to the land of not pissing on herself in the corner (keep in mind this is something the staff has failed to notice for years, but Hugh Laurie spots in a single goddamn day).
But it's not just in medical dramas. We've seen this in pretty much all of the Hannibal Lecter movies (figuring out the one thing that makes the killer an insane murder machine allows the cops to predict who, when and where he'll strike next) and in every film where the primary villain gets talked out of his psychotic master plan by a hero that "understands" him.
Hell, that's even the ending of Spider-Man 2: Spidey talking Doc Ock out of his murderous insanity. "You're completely right, Spider-Man, I did say that people need to let dreams go sometimes. To Hell with my dead wife and everything else that I've lost, I'm totally pulling this fusion reactor on top of myself to save the lives of all the people I was hell-bent on vaporizing mere seconds ago."
In the medical community, this phenomena is known as "complete and utter whale shit" , but in Hollywood it's call it "the magic key."
"Just stick this in your crazy hole and we'll unlock the sanity!"
See, Hollywood is convinced that sometimes there is just one specific thing that has to be discovered in order to cure a person of their shoelace-eating lunacy--or at least unravel the mystery behind it--long-term treatment and medication be damned.
Why It's Bullshit:
Simply put, psychology is not a game of Jenga, wherein one crucial block can bring down the entire tower of mental illness. No one factor made the person snap, and shoving one thing back into place won't make them whole. If it did, this mental illness stuff would be easy.
In the real world people with severe personality disorders are about as predictable as the weather, and so far the fact that we all know what causes lightning hasn't helped us figure out when and where it's going to strike with any kind of certainty.
For instance, think about all those cinematic serial killers brought to justice by the cunning insight of a psychological profiler. In real life that shit only leads to arrests about two percent of the time. The linked Malcolm Gladwell article took a comprehensive look at serial killer profiling and found that it's nothing more than cold reading - a parlor trick utilized by old-timey magicians and psychics to con people into thinking their mind was being read. People want to believe that Sherlock Holmes and his modern day incarnation, Dr. House (or Ben Matlock for you high-brow types) really exists. In reality, the only cases of successful psychological profiling were heavily doctored by the profilers themselves to make their predictions seem more accurate.
"And here's where I'll tell them the killer's address instead of screwing up everyone's lunch order like I actually did!"
#5. A Day With a Crazy Badass Shall Cure Them All
There's seemingly one person in every silver screen mental hospital who's there either by choice or because the squares on the outside couldn't deal with how "real" they are. See Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted; or Michael Keaton in The Dream Team. Once they get inside, the rebellion starts small--screwing with the staff, shaking the other patients out of their passivity and generally doing things that in any other situation would brand you a totally disruptive penis.
Whether it's by getting them to refuse to take their medication, taking them on an unsupervised adventure through the city or getting one of them laid, the rebel does more to help these poor nuts in one day than all their doctors and nurses with their fancy big city book learning have done in years.
Why It's Bullshit:
This isn't just idiotic, it's insulting. It plays to that stupid Hollywood notion that decades of schooling and experience with thousands of patients means nothing compared to one tough guy ready to give them a good old fashioned kick in the pants.
See, if you could really break somebody out of a psychological shell with a single unsupervised trip led by a gruff tour guide in a leather jacket, we would fucking do that. That's way easier than what we're doing now.
But it's not the implied insult toward the mental health profession that makes this so irritating. It's the implication that in each crazy person, good mental health is lurking about one-inch beneath the surface, ready to be cured in a couple of days. So when somebody raised on these movies actually runs into an actual mentally ill person, they can't help but wonder why they don't just get over it already.
"You all need to stop being such GODDAMN LUNATICS."
#4. Electroshock Treatment is a Savage, Primitive Treatment
According to movies like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Shine, A Beautiful Mind and Changeling, electroshock treatment (electroconvulsive therapy or ECT) is the equivalent of treating testicular cancer with thumbtacks and a crescent wrench.
A bunch of savagely indifferent doctors strap some poor bastard down and try to shock the crazy out - leaving the victim docile, slightly charred and with a bucket of fried chicken where their brain used to be. The portrayal of ECT is so overwhelmingly negative that it frequently gets picked last for kickball, behind Nazis and child molesters.
Go ahead and get in kids. It's not like he's got an ECT machine in there.
Why It's Bullshit:
In reality, ECT works and it's safe. It's painless and has the same level of risk as general anesthesia, and has been used successfully for years to treat depression. Patients who undergo the treatment typically find themselves more engaged, more active and altogether happier people.
See? Look how happy he is.
The only negative thing is that they have to keep getting the treatment to stay healthy. And as for the screaming, struggling patient being dragged down the hall to the electroshock room? Unless the patient is catatonic and their life is in immediate danger, ECT can only be administered with informed consent.
See, Hollywood always leaves out the part where the doctors sit down and carefully explain the benefits and risks of ECT to their patient so a rational decision can be made. Then they drag them down the hall to shock their balls off.