Movie Characters with Anxiety Disorders (Are There Any?)

When I woke up this morning, the first thing that popped into my head was “It’s Oscar day!” I love movies and I love the Academy Awards, so today is like an unofficial holiday for me, as I count down the hours to the start of the big event. Hype! Dresses! Upset victories! Buzz-worthy moments! I love it all.

As I was musing about all things movie-related this morning, one thought that popped into my head was how rarely I could recall seeing characters with Anxiety Disorders portrayed in movies, especially compared with other mental illnesses. I wasn’t sure if that was fact or just my perception, so I did what I often do to investigate an issue of interest to me: I put together some stats. So off to Wikipedia I went! 

Just as Wikipedia seems to have an article on just about any topic you can imagine, they have an article entitled “Mental disorders in film,” which lists various mental disorders, along with the films in which they were portrayed. Now this is Wikipedia, which means the accuracy of this list is open to debate, but I figured it’s at least a starting point. So here are a few numbers I put together. I took a look at some of the disorders listed, and counted the number of movies that apparently included portrayals of those disorders. Here’s what I found…

  • Bipolar Disorder: 46 movies
  • Depression: 67 movies
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: 25 movies
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: 86 movies
  • Schizophrenia: 80 movies

And here’s what I found for various Anxiety Disorders

  • Agoraphobia: 31 movies
  • Social Anxiety Disorder: 8 movies
  • Anxiety Disorders (unspecified): 9 movies

..And that was it for anxiety. So the bottom line was that aside from Agoraphobia (which appears to be the only Anxiety Disorder movie-makers have heard of), characters with Anxiety Disorders are found in movies about ¼ as often as characters with Depression, for example. And that’s despite the fact that Anxiety Disorders are consistently one of the most common mental illnesses that people experience.

Thus it appears my impression was correct, that characters with Anxiety Disorders do appear to be under-represented in movies (and to be honest, I hadn’t even seen any of the nine movies listed under the unspecified Anxiety Disorders section, which is where my diagnoses would fall). Then I wondered why that was. Was it because Anxiety Disorders (aside from Agoraphobia) tend to be more internal conditions, something that affects thoughts more than obvious behaviours? When I think about how my Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Phobias affect my observable behaviour, I suppose it would look a bit like me talking at length (and probably unnaturally quickly) in a manner that showed I was putting way too much thought into a particular (likely insignificant) issue. Or it might look like me avoiding a situation that I expected to trigger my anxiety, like not wanting to drive on a busy highway.

Hmm, talking too much and not doing things, I guess that doesn’t sound like the most dramatic basis for a movie! I suppose most of us with Anxiety Disorders have developed a lot of coping mechanisms to hide our illness from the world, always trying to apear “normal” while our brains feel like out-of-control freight trains, and that doesn’t typically translate especially well in a visual medium like film.

I felt disappointed at first when I reflected on how rarely Anxiety Disorders show up in films. I thought how valuable an educational tool movies could potentially be for showing what it’s like to live with anxiety. I also thought about how much it would mean to me to see someone on the screen who acted like me, who had my struggles – maybe it would give me a better sense of belonging in the world, maybe I’d feel more comfortable in my own skin.

Then as I looked again at the list of all those movies that had mentally ill characters, I was reminded that more often than not, Hollywood gets the portrayal of mental illness wrong, likely further stigmatizing the conditions portrayed. After all, as it says in the Wikipedia article, “Extreme and florid manifestations of any given disorder tend to prevail over the more subtle ones typical of the average case.” Maybe it’s for the best that us Anxiety Disorder sufferers are under the radar, at least when it comes to the movies.

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