Except for extreme cases such as paranoid schizophrenia, or conditions with sympathetic social connotations (Down syndrome; severe autism), there is a tendency in media to regard mental disorders as some kind of put-on or character flaw that is at best amusing, at worst annoying. (Not that the extreme illnesses are exactly treated like cancer-victims; in fact they can be treated worse
than milder forms.) The two most "comical" conditions are Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
and Tourette's Syndrome
, both of which can be significant, sometimes disabling problems in real life.
At the very worst, a person is portrayed as being completely able to break out of their illness if they were to simply try hard enough — in other words they're just plain lazy
in addition to the behavior itself. Depressive? Cheer up! Manic? Just take a deep breath and calm down. Obsessive-compulsive? Relax already. Delusional? Get a grip on that overactive imagination. An eating disorder? Please. You look fine! Hyperactive? Control yourself, my God. Paranoid? It's not all about you, you know! Anxiety with panic disorder? Suck it up, coward!
A genuinely good
character will, however, treat the mentally disturbed with kindness and will nicely ask whether they went off their meds
and that's why they're acting up again.
This prejudice contributes to the mentally disturbed being Acceptable Targets
for the most merciless cruel humor and parodization. This pertains to sociological stereotypes that most people will tend to blame the victims of misfortunes, in order to take credit for their own good
fortune, rather than owning it up to plain luck of the draw (often because luck runs out, and this means that it's only a matter of time for them).
Note that this also pertains to the illusion of control that society presents regarding one's mental state, vs. one's physical state; i.e. few, if any, will blame victims of cancer (except for lung cancer), leukemia, or similar organic physical illnesses or injuries, telling the person to "toughen up and get over it," or otherwise calling them "weak" or "lazy."
See also: Hollywood Personality Disorders
, Insane Equals Violent
, Funny Schizophrenia
, Categorism as a Phobia
, Black and White Insanity
, Acceptable Target
. If the exact nature of the disturbance isn't spelled out it may be a case of Ambiguous Disorder
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Anime and Manga
- Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei takes this one to its logical extreme. Half the cast, or more, suffers from some form of severe mental disorder, which is usually played for laughs (albeit intentionally dark and disturbing laughs).
- Alphonse and Edward from Fullmetal Alchemist display all signs of PTSD when confronted with their old teacher, who was a firm believer in Training from Hell. Naturally, we're supposed to laugh. Meanwhile the trauma from the botched resurrection of their mother, which resulted in the loss of Al's entire body and two of Ed's limbs, is portrayed with the weight it deserves.
- Sakon Daimaru from Gamaran used to be sane, but became mentally disabled after the Training from Hell he suffered. Add his incredible martial arts to the lot and you get an Handicapped Badass and a Screaming Warrior in battle.
- Yukishiro Enishi of Rurouni Kenshin is severely disturbed because he witnessed the death of his older sister Tomoe at the hands of the protagonist Kenshin, who killed her by accident and the trauma is very apparent. His hair went white soon after, he hallucinates seeing Tomoe, and if he tries to harm young women he becomes physically ill. To say nothing of his violent behavior.
- One could make a very good case for Char Aznable qualifying as clinically insane during the events of Char's Counterattack. He's having constant flashbacks, he sees things and hears voices, and his cognitive dissonance has become so strong that he can somehow mentally reconcile dropping a meteor on the planet with his end game of "saving the world."
- Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny has Stella Loussier. Experimented on as a child, and subjected to massive quantities of mind-altering drugs, Stella is an Idiot Savant who can fly a Humongous Mecha, but otherwise functions at the mental and emotional level of a five year old. Terrified of the world around her, she lashes out at anything that her superiors tell her is going to hurt her, burning down most of Berlin in a panicked effort to "make the scary things go away."
- Ken Kaneki from Tokyo Ghoul gains considerable mental problems after his torture at the hands of Yamori, with his hair turned white from the trauma. Though he pretends to have things under control, several of his friends recognize that he is slowly spiraling into madness and worry deeply for him. He's very clearly traumatized, mimicking the behavior of his tormentor and obsessed with becoming strong enough to protect everyone he cares about. When stressed, he suffers bouts of hallucinations or loses sight of himself to the extent he starts using different pronouns to refer to different pieces of himself. This ultimately comes to a head when he gains his half-Kakuja form, suffering from a complete psychotic breakdown and nearly killing his True Companions in the process. It makes him realize how far gone he really is, forcing him to begin recognizing that his actions have been self-destructive. He spends the final chapters of the series having another psychotic break, hallucinating for much of his battle with Arima and finally resolving that the only thing left for him to do is to "rest and have a peaceful dream". The sequel has left his ultimate fate ambiguous, thus far.
- In the Monster Island arc of Cyborg 009, one of the scientists engineers insects that cause any people they sting to go insane. The victims seem to mentally regress to being infants, wandering around and needing others to feed and care for them. The cyborgs discover that scaring one of the victims sufficiently causes him to temporarily become sane, but he ends up reverting back after the shock wears off. While this is treated as a danger, the actual behavior of the victim the cyborgs find is Played for Laughs, with several joking about how 003 is being motherly towards him.
- Most comic book villains are not this trope, with Arkham Asylum in particular standing as a tribute to the fact that most people do not understand insanity or the insanity defence.
- The Flash villain Hunter Zolomon/Zoom is a legitimate example of a mentally disturbed individual. Traumatised by, among other things, discovering his father was a Serial Killer (whose last victim was his mother), being crippled in the same shootout that killed his father-in-law, and being crippled again by Gorilla Grodd a short time after learning to walk, Zoom believes that Misery Builds Character, and that he is helping the DC Universe's heroes by hurting them. Delusional, paranoid, holding a view of the world that is fundamentally at odds with reality, and verging on suicidal, Zoom is badly in need of institutionalization and therapy.
- The Flash Rogue Heat Wave is a pyromaniac who burned down his childhood home and killed his parents in the process because he just couldn't help it. He's disturbed by his own insanity and has attempted therapy, albeit unsuccessfully.
- Batman villain Killer Croc is another legitimate example. Having suffered massive amounts of abuse growing up and burdened with an increasingly monstrous set of deformities, Croc's mind was broken even before his condition started to eat away at his sentience. Nowadays he's more animal than man, and it's an open question whether he can be held accountable for his actions.
- Two-Face may not have a real mental disorder, but there is no doubt that he is mentally ill. With a fractured psyche that leaves him totally dependent on coin tosses to make decisions, Two-Face is void of moral agency, and is one of the few patients at Arkham to actually belong there.
- Hank Pym is said to be bipolar in the short-lived Avengers A.I., and has had numerous mental breakdowns over the course of his history.
- The Belgariad's Taur Urgas, who in addition to being an Axe Crazy psychopath is also prone to fits in which he foams at the mouth, chews on furniture, and otherwise completely loses touch with reality. This is actually played for a degree of sympathy when Eriond notes that Taur Urgas' madness was so severe as to excuse him from responsibility for his crimes, something that the rest of the cast had not considered.
- In Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian Grey has a number of psychological issues that he blames entirely on his dead mother (although she died when he was four and he was raised by a loving foster family after that), which include a violent personality, a desire to control everything in his life, freaking out when his chest is touched, hating blonde women (because he somehow was traumatized by a blonde policewoman carrying him away from his mother's body), and choosing young brunette women as submissives because they resemble his mother. These alternate between being treated by Ana as a series endearing, if occasionally exasperating, quirks and being Played for Drama so Ana will treat him sympathetically. His therapist suggests to Ana that she's healing his issues simply with the Power of Love. Also, his love of BDSM and dislike of vanilla sex is treated as a symptom of how messed up he is.
Live Action TV
- Scrubs usually plays right into this one for a cheap laugh but takes a long look at individual characters to find some genuine problems. This ranges from the psychologist's two o'clock client running into a shot just long enough to inform characters that "they've landed" to a surgeon
unwilling unable to leave the operating room hours after performing surgery because he's still washing his hands.
- This latter scene developed into a serious, very well done, and poignant scene in which the main character sees just how much the surgeon with OCD actually suffers because of his condition, while prior to this it had been played mostly for laughs.
- As a kid watching Sesame Street, Forgetful Jones is quite funny. But when you look back at it as an adult, you are wondering what person thought it would be great to make fun of a man suffering from advanced dementia, who appears no longer be able to do anything unsupervised.
- In a throwaway joke in Extras, Andy balks at the prospect of being set up with a woman with bipolar disorder and says something like, "She'll forget to take her lithium and kill me." Granted, he is an Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist, but still.
- In Glee, Emma Pilsbury's OCD is mostly shown as a strange character quirk instead of the debilitating mental illness that it is. The show also keeps making jokes about how Emma's OCD and germphobia has caused her to be a virgin at her age, as she can't make herself get intimate with people. It took until the end of season 2 for the show to actually treat her OCD seriously, by having her go to a therapist to get help, at which point she admits that she's actually ashamed of it and that it's basically destroying her life.
- In one episode of CSI, Grissom befriends the schizophrenic sister of the victim, who was driven insane by the same circumstances that led to the vic's death and is now a rambling bag lady. The end of the episode shows Gris walking next to the sister as she pushes her cart, having a lovely and surprisingly philosophical conversation with her regarding her delusions (she believes she's searching for something important, and when she finds it she can finally rest).
- Canadian television series Cracked deals with a team of police officers and psychiatrists assembled to deal with crimes involving the mentally ill—whether as perpetrators, victims, or witnesses. Main character Aiden Black is himself suffering from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and undiagnosed anxiety and mood disorders, stemming from his involvement in two fatal shootings, and as such has a great deal of sympathy for the victims of mental disorders. In the main, the show treats the mentally unwell as people, with a strong emphasis on treatment; one Season 1 episode, "No Traveller Returns", focuses on Aiden and resident psychiatrist Daniella Ridley having to make the case to a review board that cannibal, murderer, and paranoid schizophrenic Mandar Kush is fit for release from the mental ward he has been in for the past eleven years. They turn out to be entirely right—Kush has not had an episode in a decade, deeply regrets what he did, and is looking to make amends and reintegrate into society.
- Justified: Season 3 Big Bad Robert Quarles spent his formative years being raped and abused by his heroin addict father's clients. As an adult he's deeply angry, prone to fits of irrational behaviour, dependent on pain-killers in order to remain mentally functional, and prone to reenacting the abuse he suffered, typically taking it out on male prostitutes. Damaged on a fundamental level, Quarles comes off as a very disturbed man trying to figure out why anybody would want to do this in the first place.
- Final Fantasy VII protagonist Cloud Strife is an emotionally fragile young man who suffers from bouts of depression, low self-esteem, and delusions, remembering things that never happened to him, and subconciously appropriating his friend Zack's life for his own. Couple this with his tendency towards shutting down when overloaded with stress, and it's clear that Cloud is seriously in need of professional help. He eventually does come to terms with a lot of his problems after his friend Tiffa takes a jaunt through his mind, and manages to be an effective hero nonetheless.
- Despite being a survival horror game set in a mental hospital, The Evil Within has a suprisingly sympathetic portrayal in the form of Leslie Withers; he's clearly suffering from something severe enough that he can barely form a sentence or hold a thought, but he's certainly not violent or aggressive and tries desperately (as best he can) to warn you when something bad is about to happen.
- In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the trope is maybe criticized with Lizzie's views about Mrs. Bennet. Lizzie sees her as this, but everyone else insists that she is pleasant and kind, whatever annoying opinions and form of interest she takes in her daughters's current love life, which makes clear that Lizzie may be actually projecting her anxiety over her life on her mother, the only one to share it. The best example is the spinster/witch costume, leading to much Alternate Character Interpretation.
- On the humor website Something Awful, Asperger's Syndrome is apparently considered a great punchline, and this is starting to catch on in other places around the web. At least some of the humor is derived from the tendency of non-professional internet denizens to self-diagnose for the condition, as a way of stating that social ineptness is not their fault. Obviously, it takes more than just social ineptness to be diagnosed with Asperger's, but that doesn't stop the self-diagnosed from leaping to conclusions.
- In the Whateley Universe, there's a disease that some mutants have. Diedrick's Syndrome. It makes the sufferers sometimes break down into 'crazed supervillain' ranting and such. The best-known case at Whateley Academy is a popular target of the school bullies and elitists.
- Frequently averted and deconstructed on Cracked which has many articles that point out how reductive a viewpoint this is, and how it completely ignores genuine mental anguish that needs to be addressed. In particular John Cheese, who himself suffers from Depression, seems to be angered by it and wrote that going to see a counselor or feeling depressed doesn't make you crazy, and urged young people to seek help if they're going through a crisis.
- The aversion is more notable considering it's comedy site. However this is not to say, there aren't jokes in their articles about mental illness. Just that they treat mental illness as a serious condition. This aversion is justified because a lot of the articles about neurological disorders are either written by people who have them or people who have interviewed mentally ill persons beforehand.
- Ren from The Ren & Stimpy Show is probably the most famous example from Western animation. However, unlike most examples, his psychotic freak-outs weren't always played for laughter. While he did display Insane Equals Violent behavior, it was always when he was being normal; when his manic side was triggered, that's when he snapped into batshit terrifying, yet non-violent mode. Examples include "Stimpy's Fan Club", in which a quite long and elaborate scene is dedicated to him considering killing Stimpy (complete with rambling that "his hands are dirty, the dirt won't come off" and that "with these hands, he holds the fate of millions"), but he doesn't lay a finger on him throughout all of it. There's also "Sven Hoek", in which he becomes furious with his cousin Sven and Stimpy, leading to another disturbing monologue. It truly gives a twist to Ren's personality, at least before he was flanderized post-season 2.
- In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, "Screwloose", a clearly insane patient in the Ponyville Hospital's mental ward, is literally barking mad. Fortunately, in later episode, Screwloose has a cameo that shows she's recovering, now living in a regular house with having a nurse to look after her.
- On Total Drama Revenge of the Island, Mike has "multiple personality disorder" that is pretty much Played for Laughs and a Loves My Alter Ego-styled Love Triangle involving Anne Maria and Zoey. It takes a much more central role in All Stars, where a new personality is revealed, who takes over Mike's body completely and becomes the Big Bad.
- In Adventure Time, the Ice King suffers from an Alzheimer's-like dementia and hallucinations; while he's usually Played for Laughs, (especially in the beginning) he has some truly heartbreaking moments.
- The Royal Tart Toter and Lemongrab, as well. Tart Toter is senile and schizophrenic, and Lemongrab was intentionally to come across as severely autistic.
- For much of human history, any behavior frowned upon by the majority or elite was considered to be a sign of mental illness, and before that a sign of evil (e.g. association with the devil or demonic possession).
- Cartwright identified drapetomania, a common mental illness among 19th century American slaves that irrationally compelled them to run away from their owners. He recommended treatment by flogging. It should be noted, however, that this was NOT widely accepted as a mental illness; contemporary people mocked the "mental illness" at the time that Cartwright proposed its existence, and noted that as European indentured servants had also run away, clearly the disease was European in origin and had been introduced to Africa in the 17th century by slave traders.
- And in the Soviet Union, being opposed to Communism was considered a sign of mental illness, as well — and was used as a thin veil for torture in "mental hospitals," disguised as "treatment."
- And not only in the Soviet Union; Hitler's first euthanasia victims were 28 mental patients, while the United States likewise sometimes classified non-conformity to various legal requirements as mental illness— and subjected victims to similar treatments, despite later being proven wrong.
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder is a real diagnosis that is often misapplied to any child with behavioral problems, just like ADD is often misapplied to any child who gets bad grades.
- Any term used to describe the mentally handicapped gets used as an insult. Retard is merely the latest in a long line of these - moron and idiot both were once medical terms. People sometimes use autistic to mean behaving in a socially inept manner, or say someone is ADD when they have trouble focusing. This process is known as the euphemism treadmill, and is inevitable, due to human love of simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and insulting each other.
- Even earlier than that, "Idiot" was a political slur that meant a person who was uninterested in public affairs.