Best/Worst Movie Portrayals of Mental Illness and Its Treatment
Psychmovies.com Survey Results Summary
Brooke J. Cannon, Ph.D.


Popular movies often include characters with mental illness. Some of these portrayals are sensationalized, some are glorified, some are fairly accurate. Similarly, the portrayal of mental illness treatment and treating professionals in the movies is far-ranging. Various authors have voiced their opinions regarding the merit of such films (e.g., Gabbard & Gabbard, 1999; Rabkin, 1998; Robinson, 2003; Schneider, 1985; Wahl, 1997; Wedding, Boyd, & Niemec, 2005). There have been few systematic attempts to determine the opinions of groups of professionals, as well as students and mental health consumers and their families. The present study sought to identify the best and worst movie portrayals of mental illness and its treatment/treating professionals through online survey methods.

An initial survey was used to solicit nominations. Participants were asked identify up to 10 (in rank order) movies in each of four categories: 1) the best (most accurate) portrayal of mental illness; 2) the worst (least accurate) portrayal of mental illness; 3) the best (most accurate) portrayal of mental illness treatment/treating professional; and, 4) the worst (least accurate) portrayal of mental illness treatment/professional.

Invitations to participate in the survey were posted on www.psychmovies.com, www.nami.org (National Alliance on Mental Illness research invitation page), the APA Division 12 listserv, and the National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology listserv. Of the 542 who accessed the nominating survey, 191 provided at least one nomination. A large number of movies were suggested. For example, when considering only the top ranked nomination from each participant, there were 72 different movies for best mental illness portrayal, 73 for worst mental illness portrayal, 40 for best treatment portrayal, and 48 for worst treatment portrayal. A target of five nominees in each category was set and preferential voting system methods were used to determine nominees (the same process used by Price-Waterhouse for the Academy Awards).

A second online survey was then created, which constituted the ballot for each of the four categories. Additional questions addressed demographic data, qualitative responses (i.e., "Why did you select this movie?"), and whether or not participants had seen each of the movies. Invitations to participate were posted as above. Additionally, email invitations were sent to all National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapters in the United States and an announcement was posted at John Grohol"s Psychcentral.com.

The online ballot was accessible from September 25th-November 23rd, 2008. Of the 658 who accessed the survey, 466 voted in at least one of the four categories. Respondents included 61 international participants (from 15 different countries). [No statistically significant differences were found between the American and International participantsí responses; therefore, data were collapsed for all subsequent analyses.] Participants were predominantly female (75%) and average age was 43 years (SD = 15.0). Self-descriptors were as follows (may have chosen more than one category): academicians (high school teacher of psychology, psychology professors, professor in related mental health field): 16%; students (psychology or related mental health field): 24%; professionals (practicing psychologists, masterís/doctoral level professionals): 26%; mental health services consumer: 15%; family member of mental health services consumer: 27%; member of NAMI: 35%; and, other: 3%.

General results reflect rank ordering of movies selected in each category based upon percentage of participants who selected the movie. Only respondents who indicated that they had seen the relevant movie were included in each analysis. Rank order results are as follows for the sample as a whole (beginning with most frequently selected movie):

1) Best mental illness portrayal: A Beautiful Mind (46%); Ordinary People (19%); Girl, Interrupted (18%); As Good As It Gets (17%); Rain Man (11%); One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (6%); Sybil (5%); Silence of the Lambs (2%); Memento (2%);

2) Worst mental illness portrayal: Me, Myself, and Irene (57%); Psycho (19%); Analyze This (17%); What About Bob? (15%); Silence of the Lambs (14%); One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (6%); and, The Prince of Tides (4%);

3) Best treatment/treating professional portrayal: Good Will Hunting (27%); Ordinary People (22%); A Beautiful Mind (19%); Awakenings (17%); Patch Adams (12%); K-Pax (12%); Girl, Interrupted (10%); Sybil (8%); and, As Good As It Gets (5%); and,

4) Worst treatment/treating professional portrayal: The Prince of Tides (35%); What About Bob? (32%); Analyze This (22%); Color of Night (22%); Silence of the Lambs (20%); and, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (19%).

Responses for each category were then analyzed using Chi Square analyses for each category selection. Interesting differences were found. For example, participants who were academicians selected Ordinary People as both best portrayal of mental illness and best portrayal of treatment/treating professional, whereas family members of mental health consumers chose A Beautiful Mind in these categories. Mental health consumers preferred Patch Adams as best portrayal of treatment/treating professional , whereas students preferred Good Will Hunting in this category. All groups selected Me, Myself, and Irene as the worst portrayal of mental illness in the movies.

In order to compare responses across participant categories, additional analyses were conducted among five orthogonal groups of participants (n = 304), that is, including those participants who were only: mental health consumers, family members of mental health consumers, mental health academicians, mental health professionals, and, mental health students. Resulting differences among groups are discussed in consideration of the qualitative responses provided (i.e., reason the movie was selected). For example, personal relevance appears to play a role in determinations. In addition, both students and academicians appear to be more attentive to the accuracy of portrayal of mental illness symptoms, as well as the presence of ethical violations by treating professionals.