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Mental Illness Stigmatization in Media and Literature

The problem of labeling persons with mental illnesses is actively discussed by psychologists, sociologists, and other researchers in the context of making stigmas which affect these individuals’ interactions. Therefore, the question to discuss in detail is how the stigma of a mental illness or labeling associated with the misinterpretation of mental conditions can cause persons to act radically. Donnie Darko, a film directed by Richard Kelly, was released in 2001, and it represented a story about a male teenager who was supposed to suffer from schizophrenia (Beech). The focus on Donnie’s case is important to discuss how the stigma associated with his mental disease could influence his decisions and activities. Even though Donnie’s violent actions in the film can be viewed as negative outcomes of his schizophrenia, this young man’s radical decisions and activities can also be discussed as consequences of the stigma imposed on him by people whom he trusts.

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When Donnie experiences the first hallucinations and when his diagnosis is stated by his psychiatrist Dr. Thurman, it possible to note that this young man faces the first barriers associated with the social stigma of mental disease. According to Alex Blazer, an Associate Professor at Georgia College and State University, viewers become informed about Donnie’s problems from the first minutes of the film, and they can question his violent behavior and interpret it in a specific way (212). While following the thoughts by Warren Buckland, an author of Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, it is necessary to state that viewers can be significantly influenced by the information provided in the film, and their perceptions of characters become affected (77). Therefore, when viewers learn about Donnie’s possible mental problems, they are inclined to change their perception of events even if the plot of Donnie Darko allows for making assumptions about the reality around Donnie without providing strict conclusions.

The similar reactions based on a kind of prejudice are typical of the characters of the film, and a kind of labeling is observed when Dr. Thurman provides the diagnosis: “Donnie’s aggressive behavior, his increased detachment from reality, seems to stem from his inability to cope with the forces in the world that he perceives to be threatening” (Donnie Darko). Moreover, Dr. Thurman also accentuates a label for all other individuals who suffer from a similar disease while stating that daylight hallucinations are “a common occurrence among paranoid schizophrenics” (Donnie Darko). As a result, it is possible to expect that Donnie’s family concludes about his further actions depending on these comments of the reputable psychiatrist.

However, it is important to focus not only on the controversy associated with the stigma but also on Donnie’s actions which become consequences of this labeling. According to Dr. Elliot Panek from the University of Alabama, the actions of a person who suffers from a mental disease can be a result of his or her fears and inabilities to choose how to behave in the changing world and how to react to the public (63). These problems can lead a person to make decisions that can be discussed by other people as unpredictable or even eccentric. Thus, while following the ideas by Emma Radley, a researcher working at University College Dublin, it is important to note that Donnie’s fears and the lack of social support cause him to think about radical actions to change the situation and even about his suicide (393). According to Radley, the film “presents psychosis as a site of agency, a place of liberation from the restrictions of social reality,” and Donnie “presents this space as a dynamic one: a place from which social order can undergo necessary transformation” (393). From this point, while facing the public’s misunderstanding of his condition, Donnie finds a safe place in his hallucinations to avoid reality and feel secure.

Therefore, it is important to discuss how Donnie’s focus on rejecting social norms and making radical decisions can be viewed from the perspective of his reaction to the stigma associated with mental disorders. Gabrielle Acierno, a contributor to Highbrow Magazine, notes in her article that “there is still a pervasive discomfort and ignorance that keeps millions of those who suffer from getting treatment, trapped in their own purgatory” because of the lack of support by the public. While noticing that his activities which are oriented to addressing immorality and saving the loved people are not supported, Donnie’s actions become more unconventional and violent. These actions can be discussed as the young man’s reaction to labeling, ignorance, the experienced discomfort, and the observed unfairness.

Matthias Angermeyer and Herbert Matschinger, the researchers working at the University of Leipzig in Germany, explain this aggressiveness and violence in behaviors of people who suffer from mental illnesses concerning the overall negative effect of labeling on these vulnerable individuals (304). According to the researchers, labeling is associated with developing stereotypes, and “endorsing the stereotype of dangerousness has a strong negative effect on the way people react emotionally to someone with schizophrenia and increases the preference for social distance” (Angermeyer and Matschinger 304). Thus, Donnie’s behavior can be explained from the point of the observed distance between him and society. Still, his aggressive actions seem to be directed not toward harming, but toward overcoming social issues. The public’s reaction to Donnie’s behavior which is based on fears, compassion, and prejudice can make this young man take certain actions to follow his path.

Although the literature on the mental illness in the context of Kelly’s Donnie Darko is limited, it is possible to state that many authors are inclined to agree that the stigma of a mental disorder can make those people who suffer from certain diseases express their negative reaction. On the one hand, the reason is in their fears and impossibilities to adapt to a new situation, as it is concluded concerning the reviewed literature. On the other hand, the reason is in the public’s attitude that they can experience daily. Thus, the social pressure and stigma imposed on Donnie Darko can be discussed as the causes of his violent actions. While experiencing the pressure associated with Donnie’s hallucinations, he also faces the lack of support from the persons he trusts. From this point, it is possible to speak about a certain problem observed in modern society. Despite debates regarding anti-discrimination and diversity policies and laws, many people continue to perceive persons with mental disorders negatively or with prejudice. Such film as Donnie Darko can draw the public’s attention to the problem of labeling and its effects.

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Works Cited

Acierno, Gabrielle. “How Popular Media Is Helping to End the Stigma of Mental Illness.” Highbrow Magazine, 2013, Web.

Angermeyer, Matthias, and Herbert Matschinger. “The Stigma of Mental Illness: Effects of Labelling on Public Attitudes towards People with Mental Disorder.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, vol. 108, no. 4, 2003, pp. 304-309.

Beech, Mark. “How to Make a Cult Movie into a Multi-Million Hit: ‘Donnie Darko’ Revived.” Forbes, 2016, Web.

Blazer, Alex. “A Phenomenological Approach to Donnie Darko.” Film-Philosophy, vol. 19, no. 1, 2015, pp. 208-220.

Buckland, Warren. Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema. John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

Donnie Darko. Directed by Richard Kelly, performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Flower Films, 2001.

Panek, Elliot. “The Poet and the Detective: Defining the Psychological Puzzle Film.” Film Criticism, vol. 31, no. 1-2, 2006, pp. 62-88.

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Radley, Emma. “Where is Donnie? Psychosis and Agency in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.” Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, vol. 17, no. 4, 2012, pp. 392-409.

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