I graduated from Ohio University, which is located in Athens, Ohio, a town about an hour or so southeast of the state capital of Columbus.
Located a short walk from the main campus is the former Athens Mental Health Center, also known as The Ridges. The vast 1,000 acre hospital complex has a lurid history, known for experimental procedures such as the lobotomy. At its peak, the hospital treated more than 1,800 patients.
I had the opportunity as a reporter for the college newspaper to visit the present-day psychiatric center in Athens, which is now known as Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare. I had truly never experienced the gravity of the effect of mental illness on a human being until this day.
Mental illness isn’t “creepy” or “cool,” nor should it be marketed or portrayed as such. America’s misguided curiosity increases when movies such as M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming thriller “Split” are released.
The majority of severely mentally ill people cannot perform basic day-to-day functions such as hygiene, house care and basic job tasks. Many of those who experience a mental illness lack the ability to form social relationships and are viewed as outcasts or are not able to secure a job because of it.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that between 20 percent to 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“Split” is loosely based on Billy Milligan, who was one of Athens Mental Health Center’s most notorious patients. Milligan was one of the first people to successfully argue a not guilty by reason of insanity defense, proving diagnosed multiple personality disorder.
Doctors discovered 23 different personalities, ranging from a 3-year-old girl named Christene to a Serbian tough guy named Ragen Vadascovinich. In “Split,” the main antagonist, showing 23 distinct personalities, kidnaps three girls from a store parking lot, leading them into madness as his mental illness begins to take over.
Films such as “Split” only work to enforce the stigma of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It’s no surprise that people are drawn into to these movies; the whole subject of multiple personalities is a fascinating one as doctors research methods to diagnose and treat those with mental illnesses so they may return to a functioning, happy life.
Instead, with movies such as “Split,” those with mental illness are viewed as weird, outcasts, dangerous or just another homeless person who made a series of bad decisions.
M. Night Shyamalan, unfortunately, has done nothing to reduce the stigma attached with mental illness. In fact, his last movie “The Visit,” also does nothing but perpetuate it as a plot device, a form of entertainment served up with a bag of popcorn.
The right thing to do, in my opinion, would be for M. Night Shyamalan to donate a portion of the profit of what surely will be a multi-million box office hit to an organization such as National Alliance on Mental Illness.
At the very least, a disclaimer should be shown at the beginning or end of the movie, possibly something along the lines of:
“About 10 million adults, or 1 in 25 of the U.S. population, experience a serious mental illness that interferes with or limits one or more major life activities, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To learn more, visit www.NAMI.org.”
As a moviegoer, I don’t blame you for wanting to view “Split”. I admit, I am interested in how accurate dissociative identity disorder will be portrayed. However, I do hope that you will perform research about mental illness and tell your co-workers, family and friends about what you discover. Learn about the signs. If you see someone struggling, ask them if they need help.
Become an advocate to reduce the stigma.