I love watching people try to act crazy. I’m about as familiar with mental illness as a non-clinician can be, so I carefully scrutinize efforts by actors to portray a particular form of mental illness. I’ll give you a brief bio, so you’ll understand my interest in this subject.
I suffered mental illness with agoraphobia for 30 years, during which time I worked with every kind of shrink imaginable, and spent at least 5 years in therapeutic groups comprising many manifestations of mental illness. When I overcame my craziness I got a job as a mental health social worker, assisting with care of severely mentally ill people, including folks with anxiety disorders. I spent 2 of my 17 years at the Mental Health Center working with homeless mentally ill wherever I found them: jails, hospitals, shelters, walking mumbling down the sidewalk (“Hi. I’m from the government. I’m here to help you.”) And to top off all my face to face visceral experience with the world of mental illness, I was also an actor at one time – a theater major. That’s why I love watching actors trying to be someone like me.
There have been a few efforts to portray agoraphobia in film but no one is going to win an Oscar sitting around the house all day looking tense and preoccupied. Usually the mentally ill characters presented as agoraphobic have other problems, or there is an additional story line. How would you portray your illness on stage if you were asked to? I have had panic attacks in front of others who were unaware of what was going on with me, so I guess I’d act as normal as I could. Or, one could take it in the other direction as Mel Brooks did in “High Anxiety.”
The truth is people are all different and there are many facets to every diagnosis, so there isn’t a set way for a schizophrenic person to talk or someone with major depression to behave. They are partly themselves and partly their mental illness.
My favorite example of actors going over the top in portraying craziness is the propaganda film “Reefer Madness.” This all came up because I read an article in “Everyday Health” titled “Anxiety on the Silver Screen.” I’ll post a link so you can read about anxiety in action.