Changeling, 2008, is based on a true story. Set in the 1920s, it is the tale of Christine Collins’ (Angelina Jolie) search for her missing son, Walter. The police publicly present Christine with a boy who looks like Walter to relieve the pressure placed on them by the public to find him, but on closer inspection she finds he is inches shorter and circumcised. Christine raises her concerns with the police and starts to question whether he really is her son. Fearing she will cause trouble, the authorities admit her to the county hospital’s psychiatric ward, where, Christine discovers, many women have been placed for questioning police and political judgement.
After refusing to admit she was mistaken about her 'son', she is declared delusional and forced to take mood-regulating medication. During this time in history, mental illness was incredibly misunderstood and even though these institutions may have been seen as places of treatment, where people could be given specialist care, they were also places of segregation. The asylums in the 1920s had very strict rules, similar to those found in a prison, and our knowledge and understanding of, and thankfully treatment of mental health issues has greatly improved since then.
Miloš Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, adapted from the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, chronicles the experience of a patient named McMurphy or Mac: a convicted criminal who is faking a mental illness to avoid spending time in prison.
Nurse Ratched runs the ward McMurphy is placed on and soon a battle of wills between the two escalates. As time goes on, he soon realises that patients live in fear of her, rather than focus on recovering and becoming ready for life outside the institution. She employs techniques such as humiliation, medical treatments and a daily routine that is tedious and repetitive to keep the patients under her control.
Ken Kesey wrote the story after working as an orderly in a mental facility. He spoke to patients and witnessed first hand the inner workings of an institution. The movie constantly references how different authorities control individuals through subtle and coercive methods, making both the book and the film accurate depictions of the reality of life in an institution in that time.
Set in the modern day, It’s Kind of a Funny Story opens with 16 year old Craig feeling suicidal and pleading with an ER doctor to be admitted to keep him from ‘doing something’ dangerous. Since the teen ward is undergoing renovations, all teens are grouped in with the adults. In his initial assessment with the doctor on the ward, Craig describes recent events that made him especially anxious; stress around schoolwork, pressure from his parents and trouble with living in the shadow of this over-achieving best friend. At the start of his stay at the hospital, Craig constantly remarks how he’s not like the other patients on the ward and he doesn’t belong with them, even though his doctor and mother admire him for seeking help to deal with what he’s going through.
By the end of his stay in the hospital though, Craig finds himself realising he needs a better support system and states that even though he is not cured he has learned to deal with his condition better. It should be noted that the factors that affect Craig are common feelings experienced at least once by most people in their lifetime - but that doesn’t mean that they are insignificant. At one point Craig’s best friend tells him he’s not sick and should just ‘chill’ more. The movie highlights that seeking help for an illness, mental or otherwise, is a good thing and should be encouraged, and that help received can result in a positive experience.
The exhibition Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age opens at FACT on 5 March 2015. Read more about the accompanying film programme curated by ReVision here - /projects/group-therapy-mental-distress-in-a-digital-age.aspx#grid-tab3