Silver Linings and Social Perceptions | Project HOME

Silver Linings and Social Perceptions


Will O’Brien has been a member of the Project HOME community for over 20 years.

I sure wish the good people in Hollywood loved folks with disabilities in real life as much as they love them in the movies.

It seems that every year we are treated to another cinematic portrait of persons struggling with disability issues – physical, mental, developmental. And invariably these movies are huge hits – critical successes, tear-jerkers, deeply moving crowd pleasers. And usually they result in a major metal haul come Oscar time. Think Shine.  Think Rainman. How about A Beautiful Mind.  Or further back in the day, there was One Flew Over the Coockoo's Nest.

Silver Linings Playbook opened in December to critical acclaim, and has been a box office hit. It has an especially devoted local following, given its Philadelphia setting and its deep immersion into Philly culture. Based on the novel by Mattew Quick, the film recounts the story of two characters who struggle with mental illness. Pat (played by Bradley Cooper) suffers from bi-polar disease.

As the film starts, he is released from a forensic hospital (not a general mental health hospital, which is one point of potential public miseducation from the film), where he was committed by the courts because of a violent incident.  He gets to know Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose mental health issues are not clearly defined but still are causing her serious obstacles in life.

So it is hardly a surprise that the latest Hollywood offering on vulnerable folks – Silver Linings Playbook – garnered a slew of Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor and Best Actress for the two leads, both of whom play persons with mental health issues.

I am not a film critic, and I needn’t go into the plot in detail.  I confess I found the film for the most part very well written, a compelling story with terrific performances. But I entered the theater leery, and I emerged concerned. 

Is the film “about” mental illness?  And is its portrayal of mental illness accurate, positive, informative, misleading? These issues have been hotly debated in the media, in the healthcare community, and in the blogosphere.  And well they should be.

The first half of the film generally portrays the seriousness and struggle involved in a mental illness like bipolar disease – though in doing so, the very limits of the film medium create a fine line between playing with stereotypes (“Those people are prone toward violent outbursts!”) and a moving depiction of the real pain for those suffering and for family and friends.  But the second half (sorry for any hint of spoiler here) devolves into a sweet rom-com, delightful to witness as two persons dealing with real brokenness find love and healing; but at the same it is a bit unsettling with its insinuation that true love and great dancing make everything all right – the severe crises of the earlier scenes give way to triumph against all odds.  (There is a strong suggestion that Pat finally decides to take medication, which he had been earlier refusing; so is there some public service message that things are better for folks with mental illness if they follow their medication regime?  As one mental health consumer pointed out in a blog posting, neither character is shown suffering any of the numerous and often debilitating side effects that usually accompany psychiatric medications.  I wonder, for instance, about Pat’s physical ability to dance so strenuously given the potent meds he is shown taking,…)

A different take on the film:  At Project HOME, we have embraced the Recovery Transformation model around persons who live with mental health issues, which asserts that they are persons aren’t defined by their illness, nor do they have to see their lives as a constant effort to “manage their disease.”  They can live with dignity, relationships and community, meaning and vocation.  So in that sense, one might applaud that the two main characters are able, even in their personal struggles to attain and maintain health, can set goals, achieve dreams, fall in love.  They can have full lives.  Maybe it’s a service to the audience that by the end of the movie, Pat and Tiffany are not just mental health consumers, but two good people dealing with life’s crap and life’s gifts as best they can.

Folks who experience mental health issues (and I count myself in that community, with a history of clinical depression) know all too well the long-standing social stigmas and myths that only contribute to the already considerable struggle of health.  Public understanding of mental illness is frequently skewed by film or television depictions of “psychotic killers” or other sorts of folks who “crazy,” “lunatics,” or some other less than endearing moniker.  All of which can contribute to societal fears of persons with mental health issues being dangerous or threatening. 

In turn, families often feel shame about a family member, and try to keep that awful reality hidden.  And quite related is the phenomenon, which we have faced numerous times at Project HOME, of NIMBY attitudes (“not in my backyard”) opposition to potential residences.  Our struggle to “free 1515 Fairmount” was a particularly dramatic example of fighting against public stereotypes to secure basic human and civil rights for persons who happen to have histories that include mental illness.

Ironically, many Hollywood films, when trying to do more “serious” portrayals of disabilities, often succumb to the “triumph over adversity” model, in which we are drawn to the noble and heroic disabled persons – to a degree that is often just as unrealistic and just as problematic in terms of public perceptions.

So while the movie-going public falls in love with fictional Pat and Tiffany with all the charm of their struggles with bi-polar disease, will they then gladly welcome into their neighborhood a safe haven or transitional residence for persons with mental illness.  While we choke up in emotion at the ways disabled folks in the theaters triumph over their adversity, will we commit as a society to appropriate resources for mental health treatment so that real-life sufferers of mental illness can in fact realize their full potential and contribute to the common good?

Will Silver Linings Playbook win big on Oscar night?  More importantly, will it result in constructive public dialog and deeper empathy?  That might be the best kind of happy ending.

If you've seen the movie, please add your own comments to the dialogue!