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Top 10 Mental Disorders Hollywood Gets Totally Wrong

by Alex Miller
fact checked by Jamie Frater

We’ve all heard of plenty of medical conditions, medical and mental disorders and illnesses throughout our lives, we may very well have friends or family members dealing with them, or, for a lot of us, we’ve become familiarised with them through mainstream media such as films and television. What many of us don’t realise, however, is that the depiction of these conditions is often wildly flawed and leads to serious misunderstandings. While we could list many more, this article talks about ten examples of just that.

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10 Amnesia

The scene where a character is knocked out, traumatised, or otherwise injured and wakes up remembering nothing is not one that’s new to many of us, it’s a trope nearly as old as media itself, yet it’s really more of a plot device than something that paints an accurate picture of this very complex and multifaceted condition.

While, yes, this clichéd scenario may happen, it’s not nearly as common as films would have you believe and it’s not the only type of amnesia, though certainly a lot more heavily featured than anterograde amnesia – the inability to form new memories – and transient global amnesia, a sadly misunderstood condition that causes confusion and agitation in patients. Alongside this, a physical injury being the cause of retrograde amnesia, the one we know so well, while certainly possible, isn’t always the case and it’s usually more gradual and varying than it’s portrayed, though certainly still very serious.[1]

9 Narcolepsy

ODE TO JOY Official Trailer (2019) Martin Freeman, Morena Baccarin Movie HD

Narcolepsy, often portrayed simply as a mysterious disorder that makes people fall asleep randomly, is another condition that’s heavily used in fiction and just as misunderstood because of it.

Narcolepsy, in reality, is another very complex condition with a neurological cause and symptoms that may vary wildly. While, yes, it may make people fall asleep randomly during the day, it’s a lot more than that. Common symptoms of the disorder are sometimes extreme daytime sleepiness, sleep paralysis, potential hallucinations, and, in some patients, cataplexy, the sudden loss of the ability to control their muscles, it may be triggered by intense emotions or reactions and it usually lasts for a few minutes, during which the person going through it is actually awake.

Some of these symptoms are thankfully treatable, even though the condition itself sadly isn’t there yet, and people who have serious narcoleptic symptoms are usually a lot more careful to manage them as best as possible than they are in any film you may see about this condition, even aside from the often vastly different symptoms.[2]

8 Sociopathy and Psychopathy / ASPD

Fatal Attraction (1987) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Veering off towards the topic of misunderstood mental disorders, sociopathy and psychopathy, more formally recognised as ASPD, or Antisocial Personality Disorder, is an extremely demonised condition that, while certainly requires care, understanding, and perhaps caution around individuals who have the disorder, isn’t necessarily something that turns people into criminals or serial killers and it’s absolutely one of the mental disorders that could really use some more accurate representation in popculture.

While it is true that people with this disorder may lie, manipulate, and commit crimes and immoral acts, ASPD, like all mental conditions, exists on a large spectrum and many people who have it lead completely normal lives and aren’t out to harm people. Caution may be advised, but certainly also needed are understanding and proper care.[3]

7 Schizophrenia

A Beautiful Mind Trailer

Staying on track with mental disorders, schizophrenia may just be the most misunderstood out of any of them, both in media and in real life.
A serious condition that’s often confused with Dissociative Identity Disorder, having multiple personalities, is an entirely different condition in reality and also vastly differs from the way films and television also somewhat demonise it and portray it in various horrible ways – schizophrenia driving people to commit homicide, people who just mumble to themselves and can’t function, reality is, as usual, not like that.

People with schizophrenia experience a variety of symptims, though typically hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking, the widely portrayed “voices in one’s head” phenomenon is sometimes a symptom of it as well, but rather than a violent mental illness that leaves people without control, people suffering from it are generally harmless and don’t pose more of a threat than anybody else. Like many others on this list, schizophrenia and the people living with it don’t deserve baseless fear, they deserve respect, care, and a better understanding of the condition as a whole.[4]

6 Brain Injuries

CONCUSSION – Official Trailer (HD)

Traumatic brain injury is another condition that may range from mild to severe, this time with a physical cause, and simply put, it really is just the injury of someone’s brain tissue. Films often connect this to amnesia as well, and while memory and concentration problems are potential symptoms, they don’t usually align with a complete memory loss.

Often, in media, brain injuries are thrown around as a term to explain any change in a character’s psyche and behaviour and it’s usually portrayed as more mental than physical, in reality, however, physical symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, nausea, loss of consciousness or a very dazed feeling, dizziness, trouble speaking and forming words, increased sensitivity to sensory input such as light and audio, and trouble performing everyday tasks are the general symptoms, certainly not as mysterious as TV would have you believe.[5]

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5 Autism

Daryl Hannah Reveals Her Autism to Hollywood

Autism is something nearly everyone’s heard about but few have understood properly. Another spectrum disorder, symptoms of autism do vary from person to person, though all are categorised as some form of neurodiverse behaviour, which really just means that people with autism and other neurodiverse conditions diverge from the typical norm.

Autism nowadays is often referred to as ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder because of this reason, and each autistic person’s mind may be very different from one another. Some may struggle with sensory input, others with social norms, while others may have communicative problems or a whole other range of issues. While it is considered a controversial term by some, the term “high-functioning” is often used to describe people who, despite living with autism, blend into society and its typical expectations and may live and go about their days without supervision.

Either way, autism certainly doesn’t mean a lack of emotion or empathy that would turn people into serial killers, neither does it give people inexplicable superpower-like intelligence, though. Autistic people, just as others, deserve respect, human decency, and help if necessary, not fiction-induced fear or pity.[6]

4 Fibromyalgia

Characterised by chronic, widespread pain, fibromyalgia, or FM, is often portrayed very one-dimensionally in fiction, just to give a character pains throughout their body with a suitable explanation, again, however, no medical condition is really that simple.

FM is often caused by physical or psychological trauma, though it may also begin without a known cause. Symptoms do include the one mentioned above but tiredness, trouble sleeping, remembering things, or maintaining their mood may also impact people dealing with this condition.

While there’s no cure for this disorder, various medications and stress-reduction may thankfully offer a way to treat the symptoms.[7]

3 Depression

Love Liza Trailer

Many of us can attest to the fact that depression is misrepresented in media, and, again, in real life. Many people have dealt with it, had a friend or family member deal with it, or still deals with it today, perhaps right now as they’re reading this.

Once called “chronic sadness”, depression is a serious mental illness that affects millions of people, yet it’s still often both trivialised and misconstrued in media. More than simply being sad or something a person could overcome in a day or a week or after a heartfelt speech about life, depression is something that needs treatment and help and the way it’s used as a plot device frequently falls very flat with many symptoms also going unrepresented, such as issues involving sleeping, eating, working, doing daily tasks, and a lot more.[8]


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Let’s go over the familiar scene in our heads, collectively, right now; a character sees something mismatched or unsatisfying, expresses their discomfort, and runs over to fix it, often chalked up to OCD and played as something humorous, even though behind it lies a very real mental disorder that’s more than repeating a habit or doing something in a very specific way.

Like its name suggests, obsessive compulsions are the major symptom to speak of here, things people with OCD have an incredibly hard time resisting, or, in some cases, literally cannot, no matter how hard they try. Checking things multiple times, the irrational belief of some concept or item being “wrong” or “bad”, intrusive thoughts, fears of contamination and illnesses, and a lot more, with these symptoms often taking up hours every single day and not a few moments of someone who doesn’t have OCD but simply prefers being tidy.[9]

1 Insanity

JOKER Final Trailer (2019)

Insanity, craziness, madness, a series of terms popularised by films and still frequently used today even though these terms have no real medical meaning behind them. Generally just an insulting and exaggerated umbrella term for severe mental illnesses or disorders, it’s a very frequent sight in fiction, characters who have “lost their minds” or “went insane”, but in reality, it’s nothing more than an archaic term.

It is, however, still used in the United States as a legal term for criminals who committed crimes presumably fueled by mental illness and without a conception of right or wrong or the ability to recognise their wrongdoing as the latter.

Portrayed in a very large variety of ways and always with extreme effects, screaming, wild hallucinations, unpredictable and dangerous behaviour, this again shows that mental illnesses must be understood better instead of their Hollywood treatment of being an inaccurately depicted metaphorical monster to explain away any unusual or immoral behaviours, no matter how extreme or unrealistic.[10]

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fact checked by Jamie Frater