What is Normal Anyways: Looking at Mental Illness in Popular Culture

What is Normal Anyways: Looking at Mental Illness in Popular Culture
Elise A. Ferguson
Portland State University

When I look in the mirror I see someone who looks happy, confident, and even pretty at times. On the inside, the part that nobody can see, my mind is going one hundred miles a minute. This is because, I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and have long as I can remember. When I was a child I obsessed over things such as: spiders, my house catching on fire, my mother’s death, and staying over at other people’s homes (even family). As I got older my symptoms waxed and waned, with no distinct pattern. Although certain events in my life have set off periods of extreme anxiety, such as having my daughter when I was eighteen.
The treatment options I have tried are vast, with a few medications per doctors’ orders, throughout my life; yet I never stayed on any due to the amount of side effects. I work very hard to naturally cope with my disorder and to lead a normal life. This past year though, my mental state took a turn for the worse, and living a “normal” life has become extremely difficult.
Last year around March I started having health problems, and was put on multiple medications, which doctors changed rapidly. I got sick of all the side effects and the havoc that was reaping through my body, so I quit them all cold turkey. This wasn’t hard as I was never a pill taker, and I hate medicine. The hard part was all the side effects nobody ever warned me about, the physical and mental changes I had no idea I would go through. At the same time my normally Generalized Anxiety turned into many other forms, which are very debilitating. I now suffer from a horrid form of Hypochondriasis, which is now known as Health Anxiety. For the first time in my existence I have had full blown panic attacks, which are a terrible. I literally thought I was going to die the first few times and went to the hospital. All of this has made me look at the world around me very differently. I feel like I am always on the outside looking in. I may look “normal” to the outside world but internally I am constantly struggling to get through each moment.anxiety

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a mental illness, in which worrying is a very big part of your day. People with GAD often spend 60% of the day worrying, compared to those without anxiety, who worry about 18% of the day (National Institute of Mental Health). Anxiety can range from mild to severe, with some suffers not being able to complete normal everyday tasks (National Institute of Mental Health). According to the NIH, “Generalized anxiety disorders affect 6.8 million American adults, including twice as many women as men. The disorder develops gradually and can begin at any point in the life cycle, although the years of highest risk are between childhood and middle age” (National Institute of Mental Health).
I am now a Psychology major, and have learned so much about how common having a mental illness is, and how our society has this negative stigma towards those with a mental illness. Looking at popular culture, I have never seen a positive image of mental illness. It’s always a negative portrayal. Although some mental illnesses such as GAD and depression are very common, and quite ‘normal’, the sufferers are often viewed as being ‘crazy’. As someone who has a mental illness this can be very frustrating, and hurtful to see. The stigma’s surrounding mental illness are often used in the media to depict characters, alter news stories, and provide a false picture of who we are. For example, a trend that seems to be going on is looking at those with a mental illness as violent people, particularly males. One example of this is in the news currently, and it is a story about a soldier who has returned home from the war. This man has been treated in the past for Anxiety and Depression, and may have had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The man opened fire at the Fort Hood military base killing three people and injuring sixteen, he then proceeded to kill himself (CNN). http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/us/fort-hood-shooter-profile/index.html?iid=article_sidebar
There are many sides to this news story and different articles mentioning different details. Lopez (the shooter), was on multiple medications such as Ambien, which can cause hallucinations among other side effects. Lopez also did not appear violent or have violent tendencies in any of his evaluations. This is the second shooting at Fort Hood within a five year span, and the army is lacking in necessary treatment for soldiers coming home from very traumatic situations. The media is making this story into a story about a man suffering with mental illness, which caused him to act out in violence. This may or may not be true, but there are other aspects to look at when trying to determine why Lopez did what he did.
The news source CNN has been known to be biased when reporting stories, often focusing on political opinion, and stories in favor of political affiliate’s views. http://spectator.org/blog/54760/cnns-persistent-bias. CNN is not the only news source accused of false reporting or twisting stories, which happens frequently when a person with a mental illness is a headliner. What most people don’t know is that those with one or more mental illnesses are usually the victims of crime, not the perpetrators (Huss, 2009). This story shows a different side to the shooting that many may not consider, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/04/03/298752099/shooting-unfairly-links-violence-with-mental-illness-again.
“As Good as it Gets”, is a movie starring Jack Nicholson whose character suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a disorder of the brain and behavior. OCD causes severe anxiety in those affected. OCD involves both obsessions and compulsions that take a lot of time and get in the way of important activities the person values” (International OCD Foundation). In the movie Nicholson’s character Melvin is portrayed as a very angry and violent man, who often has rude outbursts.

Although this is a very good film, it is not a correct depiction of how all people with OCD act. Having OCD does not cause you to be rude or violent, it simply means you have OCD and may also be a violent or rude person. One thing the film does well is depict Melvin going through his rituals such as locking the door multiple times. Those who have the need to preform rituals do not always do so in this manner or as severe, yet it gives viewers an idea as to what OCD can look like.
Another film that shows mental illness is, “Girl Interrupted”. The setting of the movie is primarily in a mental hospital so it shows many different characters who are ‘crazy’, especially Angelina Jolie’s character Lisa.

Lisa is very rude has no boundaries, and is at times violent. Her character is supposed to show sociopathic behavior, which is not an actual mental illness. This is not to say there is no such thing as psychotic or sociopathic behavior, it is just not a diagnosable mental illness (Huss, 2009). This behavior along with the diagnosable Anti-Social Personality disorder and Schizophrenia, are mental illnesses in which the sufferers may actually display and act out in extreme violence. Many of those who are incarcerated have one of these issues (Huss, 2009). Yet we should not let these examples lead us to believe that all of those suffering with mental illness, or even these specific mental illnesses, act out in violence or act ‘crazy’.
An article I found discusses some of the reasons the media tends to portray mental illness negatively, but does list a few instances where things are more accurate. http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-media-and-mental-illness-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ridiculous/00010192
I don’t think the creators of all media depictions are meant to be negative or full or stigmas. Take “The Aviator”, for example which portrays the non-fictional character Howard Hughes. The character played by Leonardo Dicaprio, suffered from extreme OCD in the later years of his life and had a phobia of germs and dirt/dust. The real Howard Hughes had OCD which gradually worsened as he aged and many other mental issues. The film may not show the exact nature in which those with OCD may act, but it does offer a sensationalized view of Howard Hughes.

I tried quite hard to find accurate portrayals of mental illness or those with a positive light, yet I was not successful. Popular culture gets is wrong 90% of the time when the subject is mental illness, and I feel like it’s due to ignorance and lack of knowledge. The only way I feel ‘normal’ is to either hide my illness or surround myself with those like me. Being a Psychology major is a welcoming feeling, because it breaks down the stigmas that people have towards mental illnesses. It gives me knowledge and comfort to know that we are not ‘crazy’ and mental illnesses are still very misunderstood by our society.
I am no longer embarrassed to share with people that I have a mental illness, nor do I try to hide it. If it makes someone apparently uncomfortable I try to ease that with knowledge that I have on a certain subject. When reading the news or watching a movie, I no longer get defensive or hurt by the negativity and ignorance of those who created the false image of the suffering person(s). I simply hope that through my education and personal goals I can one day help to enlighten those that do not understand. The media can be very biased and full of stigmas on any subject, mental illness just happens to be one that is often blamed for violent and ‘crazy’ behavior. With the vast amounts of research and information coming out on mental illness, I would hope that creators, artists, and reporters take into consideration they are talking about an actual illness. It’s not just up to the makers of popular culture, but the consumers to understand that just because someone is depicted in a certain way does not mean it is an actual portrayal; or that it applies to all of those in the same category. With media literacy and the ability to analyze as you consume we all can become ‘immune’ to the negativity surrounding mental illness.


Kaminsky R. (2013, September, 25). CNN’s Persistent Bias. The American Spectator. Retrieved on June 1, 2014 from
National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved on June 1, 2014, from
International OCD Foundation. Retrieved on May 20, 2014, from
from http://www.ocfoundation.org/whatisocd.aspx
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). The Media and Mental Illness: The Good, the Bad and the Ridiculous. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 1, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-media-and-mental-illness-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ridiculous/00010192
Sanchez ,R.,Brumfield, B. (2014, April, 4). Fort Hood shooter was Iraq vet being treated for mental health issues. CNN. Retrieved on May 30, 2014 from http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/us/fort-hood-shooter-profile/index.html?iid=article_sidebar

Shapiro, J. (2014, April, 3). Shooting Unfairly Links Violence With Mental Illness — Again. Shots: Health News from NPR. Retrieved May 29, 2014, from http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/04/03/298752099/shooting-unfairly-links-violence-with-mental-illness-again
Brooks, J. L. (Director). (1998). As good as it gets: Columbia TriStar Home Video.
Mangold, J. (Director). (1999). Girl, interrupted: Columbia Tristar Home Video.
Scorsese, M. (Director). (2005). The aviator: Warner Bros. Pictures.
Howard Hughes: The Aviator, The Innovator, The Billionaire. (n.d.). . Retrieved June 1, 2014, from http://entrepreneurs.about.com/od/famousentrepreneurs/p/howardhughes.htm
YouTube. (n.d.). . Retrieved May 28, 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/
Huss, M. T. (2009). Forensic psychology: research, practice, and applications. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.


2 thoughts on “What is Normal Anyways: Looking at Mental Illness in Popular Culture

  1. felise87, your essay was so interesting to read. I am very sorry that you struggle everyday because of your anxiety disorder, I am sure it is very hard to get by sometimes. I too, am a psychology major, and when you talked about the Fort Hood shootings, I was very sucked into your essay. I am obsessed with mental disorders, and I have wrote several papers for my psych classes about PTSD and how there are not enough treatment options for veterans when they return home. It’s a shame that they blame the person for having the illness instead of providing the necessary treatment needed for them. My boyfriend is currently in the military now, and has gone to seek treatment many times, and he is never satisfied with what he receives. It is a very serious concern, and I think that there should be more ways for people to seek help for their disorders.

    It is excellent that you wrote about how mental disorders are looked at with a negative view. Because if you really examine pop culture today, nothing about having a mental illness is “good.” It’s always frowned upon and you’re insane if you have an illness or need to have treatment for one. This is a fantastic topic and thank you for sharing personal information with us. It made me want to read more when you added your own life to it.

    I wish you all of the best with your psychology studies!

    • Hi Maddie,
      I know you mean when you say, “Sucked into the essay;” I was too. And I couldn’t agree with you more. There are not enough treatment options for Veterans, and there should be. PTSD is a lot like Anxiety Disorder, which in itself is a scary place to be. I am glad to hear your boyfriend is seeking regular help, whether he thinks he’s getting the proper treatment or not. (I am also glad to read that you are seeking help, Elise, regardless of the potential stigma surrounding these diseases.) These days depression is about as common as the “common cold,” they say — and it kind of sounds like people dismiss it as though it’s all in people’s heads. ::sigh:: Thank you (BOTH) for sharing your stories!

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