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6 Mental Illness Myths Hollywood Wants You to Believe

#3.
Having a Mental Illness is a lot Like Being a Superhero

Hollywood, appealing to our innate sense of fairness, has long suggested that for every faculty taken away by mental illness (reason, rationale, bowel control), there is at least one super power left behind as compensation.


For example, he lost his sight but gained the ability to narrowly avoid marrying Jennifer Lopez.

Laboring under the idea that mental institutions and halfway houses across the world are actually the secret headquarters for The Socially Incapable Justice League, movies have given us dysfunctional people that can outwit impossible prisons (Cube); developmentally disabled man-boys that can transform into super-powered aliens (Dreamcatcher); autistic kids who can crack top secret government codes (Mercury Rising); and, of course, autistic men who are awesome at blackjack (Rain Man).


Rain Man is also awesome at juice boxes.

Why It's Bullshit:

There are people called savants that are able to retain vast amounts of information, usually involving numbers but not always, and perform mental feats that most people can only dream of, but only about 10 percent of people with a mental disorder are anything close to what could be called a savant. Savants without a mental handicap are uncommon (probably because there are way more normal people than mentally disabled people), but the point is you don't have to suffer from a mental deficiency or a crippling psychosis to clean up at the blackjack table. And, in fact, that probably makes it way harder.

In real life, autism is a highly variable neurological disorder that impairs social functioning and communication, leaving those that suffer from it struggling to lead a normal, fulfilling life. In the movies, autism means little more than being really good at math, dressing like a nerd and having to put up with Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis (which might be a super power, but there's no conclusive proof). And as far as our research can tell, no mentally handicapped person has ever turned into an alien.

#2.
The Charming and Witty Psychopath

In Hollywood, nobody has more fun than a murdering lunatic. Whether you're the Joker, Hannibal Lecter, the Sheriff of Nottingham or Scar from The Lion King, you're typically the most erudite, charming and interesting person in the room.


"I have the best lines in this movie."

Moviemakers love the idea of a sociopath brutally murdering people one minute and making hilarious observational comments the next, so it comes as no surprise that these characters are often times the most endearing people in the entire damn film. They even went so far as to essentially turn Hannibal into a Batman-like vigilante in Hannibal Rising, fully embracing the fact that every audience was going to root for him anyway.


Really, it's hard to be against someone that ate Ray Liotta's brain.

Then, Showtime took the next logical step and cast a sociopath as the hero in Dexter.

Why It's Bullshit:

First, in movies the terms "psychotic" and "sociopath" are traded more often than genital infections at Flava Flav's house. But psychotic behavior is when someone attacks the mayor because Satan appeared on a box of Crunch Berries and told them to do it. Sociopathic behavior is when someone lies, doesn't feel bad about it and can't understand why anyone else would.

People who suffer from anti-social personality disorder (the closest thing in real life to a Hollywood "sociopath") almost always come from backgrounds where they're barely given enough to eat, let alone a well-rounded cultural education. Generally speaking, they aren't charming, aren't educated, aren't even particularly bright and couldn't come up with a devious scheme to save their boring ass lives. Most of them aren't even violent.

And it's actually pretty hard to rise to the top of your field if you have the typical sociopath's problems relating to other human beings. Yes, even in politics. So while Hannibal Lecter is a world-class sophisticate, a brilliant doctor and the epitome of old world charm and grace, the average real world sociopath is an isolated failure that spends his lunch breaks from Pizza Hut scribbling obscenities on the condom machine in the bathroom at the Shell station.

#1.
"I have amnesia! I just need to get my memories back!"

Hollywood loves itself some good old-fashioned amnesia. Any time your central mystery could be solved with a phone call or two, give your hero amnesia and boom, you've just filled two hours. Hollywood has been using this plot device since 19 freaking 15. At least 10 films in the silent movie era were about people with amnesia, and they haven't let up since.

Back in the day it was the old-fashioned kind of amnesia, as seen in soap operas and numerous wacky comedies. In these cases, a blunt force head trauma erases the main character's memory, and often another skull-crushing blow will set things right again (seen as recently as the Dana Carvey movie Clean Slate which, ironically, you almost certainly don't remember). Amnesia is also a job requirement for high-end assassins (see The Long Kiss Goodnight and the Bourne movies).

There's a cheesy, almost Three Stooges quality to this one so you probably always knew it was bullshit. But even if it's not caused by a bonk on the head or a secret agency wiping your memories, there still has to be some truth to it, right?

Why It's Bullshit:

In reality, it's more like Momento than Bourne.

Pretty much every other film that deals with amnesia picks and chooses what symptoms work best for their plotline from a myriad of actual cases to form a Frankenstein of medical inaccuracy. The causes of the disorder in the real world are strokes, heart attacks and infections, not hits to the head. And the result isn't a brain that hides every memory behind a curtain until the day you find the secret files on a government assassin database that brings it all rushing back.


Oh shit. I'm totally bad ass.

No, real amnesia is much more horrifying. The victims usually can't form new memories, so while their personality is intact and long-term memories are there, they are continually having the reset button punched at random.

Yes, one of the most realistic depictions of amnesia was Dory the fish in Finding Nemo.


"Hey kids, my suffering is scientifically accurate!"

Check out Geoff's twitter page at http://twitter.com/g_shakespeare.

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