Sunday, February 22, 2009

NAMI executive reflects on representations of mental illness in tonight's Oscar-nominated films

From ABC 7 in Chicago:

Every year, the nominees for Academy Awards have either disability-related themes or characters, and this year is no exception.

Mental illness is the disability of several characters nominated in lead and supporting roles. How do those characters impact people living with mental illness?

Best supporting actor nominee Michael Shannon (pictured) plays a character in "Revolutionary Road" who has spent time in a mental institution.

Nominated for best actress is Angelina Jolie, who plays a mother whose son is taken from her in "Changeling." Jolie's character gets locked up in a psychiatric institution.

Suzanne Aundriukaitis is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of greater Chicago, not-for-profit organization that provides a wide range of resources for people with mental illness. She says timing is everything.

"Changeling," which is based on a true story, takes places in the 1930's and "Revolutionary Road" in the 1960's.

"My understanding of what happens in the Changeling is that she is institutionalized because those around her don't want to deal with her belief system," Aundriukaitis said. "In the sixties, people were sometimes institutionalized for many, many years."

"Today, you cannot take people to the psychiatric facilities and simply drop them off and be done with it. Today, there are careful evaluations that are conducted prior to someone being admitted to psychiatric facilities," said Aundriukaitis.

In Dark Knight, the late Heath Ledger, another nominee for best supporting actor, plays the Joker. Many people assumed the character is mentally ill.

"It would be hard to categorize the illness that he might suffer from if he were a genuine person, but he's not. He's a fictional character," Aundriukaitis said.

But that's not true for best actor nominee Mickey Rourke's character in "The Wrestler."

"The character in The Wrestler is obsessed with wrestling. This is the only thing he can see in his life; it's like an addiction," said Aundriukaitis. "There's a disorder called obsessive compulsive disorder, and so, people who are obsessed with a particular thing and involved with it to the extent of being damaging."

Although most movies are made for entertainment, sometimes they send the wrong message.

"It scares people , frightens people and it adds to the stigma around mental illness," Aundriukaitis said. "Today's way of intervening and assisting people who have these illnesses are so much advanced over what's being portrayed in these movies. Most people with mental illness who get the treatment they need can recover fully functional lives."