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Scripting mental illness

On Thursday and Friday this week a symposium will be held at Melbourne University exploring the portrayal of mental illness in film. “Try walking in my shoes: Empathy and portrayals of of mental illness on screen“, will look at a number of films, how they impact the viewer and the implications for awareness of mental illness .

In this piece Tim Hillier, who has had a long term battle with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) discusses his illness and reflects on the portrayal of mental illness in film.

Tim writes:

I always knew that something was different, a constant torment inside my head. As an eight year old child at a Catholic Primary school, I’d think to myself, ‘are you a sinner?’, ‘how do you know?’ I would spend hours each day analysing what I’d said, or did, and whether it would constitute a ‘sin’. I was going to hell I thought, leaving me in a state of severe distress.

At night I would check that my pillow was in the middle of my bed – it had to be just right. After doing my little check and laying my head to rest, I’d start to think, ‘are you sure it’s in the middle?’ I would check again, and again, until I passed out from exhaustion.

During the second year of my university studies in finance the thoughts and strange behaviours were all-consuming and very debilitating.  I failed three of the four subjects in my first semester. I would spend hours each day outside a local hospital that had a psychiatric ward. My plan was to just walk in and ask for help, but I couldn’t muster the courage.

Eventually I wrote a note to my parents, telling them of the thoughts and torment I was experiencing. I explained I thought I had schizophrenia and needed help. Leaving the note on the kitchen bench I went for a walk. A long walk. Hours later I returned home greeted by my Mother asking ‘what’s this note?’

After being referred to a psychiatrist for assessment I had a diagnosis. I was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD. Learning about OCD enabled me to go back to university and obtain post-graduate qualifications in finance, gaining employment at a major bank. I worked hard on my career and my illness, learning to live with the ‘thoughts’, using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and medication as treatment. Unfortunately my symptoms became more severe.  I tried to change medications without time off, as my employer didn’t allow me to take sick leave for a mental illness. I explained to management I had OCD, however they had never heard of it and offered no support.

I went into a downward spiral and spent two years out of the workforce. I became suicidal, spending every waking hour ruminating about how to end my life.

I was too embarrassed to share my OCD symptoms with my friends and family and spent six months heavily medicated and refusing to share my inner world. I did however eventually explain my illness to family and friends and just sharing my irrational thoughts and experiences proved a great relief. For the first time in over a year I wasn’t suicidal and although very unwell, could see a future.

I began contacting mental health organisations like SANE Australia and Reach Out, where I found supportive people who listened without judgement. I realised there were many OCD sufferers out there, with all sorts of different symptoms. I’m now employed, working for a financial business that is much more understanding of mental illness.

Understanding mental illness is the key.

This week the University of Melbourne hosts an innovative Symposium looking at our understanding of mental illness through its portrayal on TV and in film. Try Walking in My Shoes – Empathy and Mental Health Portrayal on Screen will consider how portrayals have changed and what this means for our understanding of mental health.

I take a keen interest in mental health portrayal on screen. Do I feel my lived experience is truly reflected?

The Big Bang Theory’s character Sheldon portrays OCD as amusing – he always knocks on Penny’s door three times and calls out her name before entering  – but there is nothing amusing about OCD.

In The Aviator Leonardo DiCaprio plays a Howard Hughes overly sensitive to lights, and indecisive about clothing. He portrays the intense distress caused by these traits well and shows the debilitating nature of the illness.

When the Carrie Mathison character is admitted to a psychiatric hospital on Homeland after stopping her medication, I was reminded of the dire consequences of withdrawing medication without a doctor’s advice.

Even though some characters responsibly portray mental illness, I wonder whether only people directly affected can truly empathise. Is there a limit to people’s empathy?

Lying awake each night in distress, obsessing about the sunlight damaging my eyes, paralyzed by the thought of the inevitable morning sun and seeing no escape, I wonder, can anybody truly understand?

Whatever the answer, people with mental illness will continue to be portrayed on TV and in film. If the proper time and care is taken to accurately and sensitively portray mental illness, it can only be a positive for us all.

For me personally, my OCD is still a constant battle, but for now, one that I’m winning.

*******************************************************************************************************************************************

For more information on the “Try walking in my shoes” conference, click here.

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