Picturing the human in mental health

Almost half of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental illness within their lifetime. JCU Creative Arts PhD candidate Craig Middleton is creating a more humanised representation of mental illness in film.

In mental health week 2009, the first imaginings of Craig’s PhD research began in a striking manner. He was collaborating on the Mein Doppelgänger exhibition with Perth Artist Alex Maciver. Craig’s two experimental short films I Never Tell You Finish and Abspraken engaged with the exhibition's theme of exploring the dichotomous nature of mental illness. Craig remembers the startling interactions with the exhibition’s visitors about the experiences of mental illness most.

“The level of genuine response and the experience of honest, frank conversation with visitors about deeply personal, yet seemingly universal, dilemmas was like being hit by a train.”

Craig’s research, as a practice-based PhD candidate, identifies the causes of dichotomous representation of mental illness in feature-film production techniques, and then creates a space for the implementation of that knowledge with his screenplay. As a creative artefact, Craig’s screenplay is immediately able to humanise the experience of mental illness as represented in film, by applying the new knowledge discovered in his film analysis.

“The contribution to knowledge is inherently tied to the screenplay,” Craig says. The screenplay provides as practical space for Craig to explore and implement the finding of his analysis.

A more human picture of mental illness would reduce the harmful stigmatization faced by people with mental illnesses.

“The research will provide more resources to anti-stigma media critics and other writers, in their efforts to contribute to the de-stigmatisation of mental illness in films and the media,” Craig says. An effort of essential importance considering the effects of stigmatisation on personal relationships, employment, and even the treatment of mental illness.

Beyond Craig’s screenplay and thesis, the outcome of his research will also be a film production guide that outlines a variety of techniques and their uses to humanise representations of mental illness in films.

“It can be used as a resource for filmmakers interested in telling stories about mental illness, or stories that include mental illness as a subject matter, or stories that portray symptoms commonly associated with a mental illness.”

From those frank conversations that the lights of the Mein Doppelganger exhibition illuminated, to the dichotomous representations of mental illness that we soak up, popcorn in hand, from the big screen, Craig’s research is changing the face of film and mental illness.

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