Mental health facilities in media affecting when people get help

inside a real psychiatrist's office. Photo by Daniel Silva.
inside a real psychiatrist’s office. Photo by Daniel Silva.

By Daniel Tristyn Silva     

A warped perception of mental health facilities in media is, most of the time, at odds with lived experience.

Two individual’s experiences in mental health rehabilitation facilities were a significant departure from what they had seen in film or television. Inpatient mental health facilities are often shown through the lens of people behind bars or, what are visually, human-sized cages.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are more than 170,000 patients residing in 24-hour inpatient facilities.

“The first time I walked in I genuinely thought I was going to see someone exactly like Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted. Chopped blond bangs and all. White walls, a square TV making that buzzing sound, a guy nurse flirting with me, and literally people screaming curse words at the walls,” said Adam, who asked not to be identified.

Adam, 32, was in mental rehabilitation center for two weeks when he was 29. He has bipolar disorder type two and an addiction to drugs.

His viewing of the film Girl, Interrupted and several television shows, he said, led him to believe that he would be dehumanized by the facility’s staff and medical professionals.

Girl, Interrupted, released in 1999, depicts a young woman that has borderline personality disorder. She is, at the time of entering a mental health facility, not suicidal nor is she there of her own volition.

“That’s for crazy people. I’m getting locked away. Those sayings or phrases made me feel like the people there were thinking everything like that about me. I knew that I wanted to be there so that separated me from things I’d seen,” said Adam.

“I had been having some suicidal thoughts every once in a while, but I wouldn’t say that it was something I was stressing about too much. I was always sad and pissed off to the point that I wasn’t leaving my bedroom and was living with my parents. I had moved back in after losing my job and I knew I had to get out of there,” he said.

Adam was emotional and cried several times throughout the interview. He wanted to get help sooner but worried that he would never be able to move passed people passing judgment on his having gone to a facility.

“I think it was like two months that I wanted to go, but I was thinking about that f***ing scene where that b*** goes up to her and says I hope they put you away forever. I knew that my family, my friends, all these people that I treated so badly wanted me to disappear. I know now that it may not be true, but I felt like if I went, I would be one step closer to not existing,” he said.

The scene Adam refers to depicts an older woman telling the main character, who had an affair with the woman’s husband, that she “knew all about her” and hoped that the people in charge of the facility would lock her away forever.

“That place changed everything for me. I got meds. I moved out. I started [Alcoholics Anonymous]. Life has, oh, for sure gone way up and down, but it was like a jump start to moving on from that crazy moment,” said Adam.

A scene in a movie prevented someone from getting care that could have improved their life two months prior.

“Am I freak psycho that is going to kill my sister? Am I going to drive insane one day and try and run car off the road? Am I going to get arrested and have to wear an orange jumpsuit like I’m in a damn prison,” said Haley, who also asked not to be identified.

Haley, 24, was in an inpatient mental health facility in Texas during her senior year of high school in 2017. She has what she describes as extreme depression and anxiety.

“I knew that I was watching Shameless, but so were all of my friends. I was like “oh, sh**” are all of these people going to think of me like I’m f***ing psycho Ian,” said Haley.

Ian is a main character featured in the show Shameless. He is portrayed as violent, promiscuous, and often extremely reckless. In the show he drives with a toddler in a vehicle in the front seat with no seatbelt as a result of manic episode.

“My parents got me into this really psycho expensive place that was basically like a golfing place. The workers were dressed nice, and my doctor was literally the nicest ever. I knew no matter what though if I told people that they weren’t going to believe me. If it was spread around school that I was there everyone was going to think I was basically being force-fed mush and given Xanax,” she said.

Haley said she chose to isolate herself from her friends and decided to quietly go to the facility without anyone aside from her immediate family knowing.

Any form of isolation or experiencing things alone while mentally ill can be an issue for the person with the illness.

Haley used the word “psycho” several times throughout the interview. She used it in reference to herself and others while worrying about other people’s perception of what she was doing.

After conducting a study about societal isolation, Newcastle University found that loneliness has been found to raise levels of stress, impede sleep and, in turn, harm the body. Loneliness can also augment depression or anxiety, the study said.

Haley already had depression and anxiety. Her choice of isolation from her friends during the difficult time of her having to enter a mental health facility could have worsened her illness. Perhaps unbeknownst to her, she said she chose that route with the possibility of worsening her illness, in part, due to the television show Shameless, causing a worry of how her friends would perceive her.

The lived experience of going to an inpatient mental health facility often differs from the depiction of it on television or in film. This applies to fears of other’s perception and fear of one’s own experience prior to entering a facility.

An intake nurse at an inpatient mental health facility wished to remain anonymous but wanted to share a comment about this topic.

“Be mindful of who’s going through something and what they are watching or listening to. Getting help is essential. When you get it matters. I can just say that it is possible for people to be influenced by the media they’re watching,” she said.

If you or someone you know are in need of help for a mental health issue call 1-800-950-6264 to speak to the National Alliance On Mental Illness Helpline.