Portrayal of ECT in Bollywood, Hollywood Films Inaccurate

Experts Say Films Add to Stigma, Fear of the Treatment

Megan Brooks

May 17, 2011

May 17, 2011 (Honolulu, Hawaii) — Depiction of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in Indian cinema, also known as Bollywood, is exaggerated and scientifically inaccurate, according to research presented here at the American Psychiatric Association 2011 Annual Meeting.

ECT in Indian films is often used as punishment or to torture or coerce people, and the clinical evidence of the safety and effectiveness of ECT as a psychiatric treatment is largely overlooked, said study investigator Mansoor Malik, MD, of the Department of Psychiatry, Howard University Hospital, in Washington, DC.

The same is true, he said, for movies made in Hollywood.

"As a practicing psychiatrist, I have been very concerned about stigma attached to mental illness. Mass media and especially cinema can play a very important role in changing societal perceptions about mental illness. This is what prompted this study," Dr. Malik told Medscape Medical News.

Reached for comment, Professor Garry Walter, MB, PhD, University of Sydney, Australia, who was not involved in the study but who has also analyzed the portrayal of ECT in films, said the results are "unsurprising, echoing largely negative depictions of ECT in American movies and media generally, but at odd with the largely positive views about ECT among treatment recipients and their families."

"Indian movies," Dr. Malik noted, "are a staple source of information and entertainment for Indian masses, and such negative views of an important psychiatric treatment further stigmatize mental illness in Indian society."

Dr. Malik and colleagues identified and analyzed 13 mostly mainstream Bollywood movies that depicted ECT. For each film, the researchers assessed the accuracy of the portrayal of ECT. In all 13 movies, ECT was used to punish and/or mistreat characters, and the methods used were unscientific, where, for example, the therapy was administered without anesthesia and/or fictional.

Hollywood No Better

Dr. Malik's team also compared depiction of ECT in the Bollywood movies with published results about depiction of ECT in Hollywood movies and found strong similarities.

"There are data to support similar results from the study of Hollywood movies," he said. The nature of the depiction of ECT in Hollywood movies is largely "unfavorable."

Professor Walter noted that inaccurate portrayals of mental illness and psychiatry in film "may have a range of adverse effects."

These include "promoting inaccurate community knowledge and negative attitudes towards people with mental illness; increasing the stigma perceived by patients, their families, and mental health professionals; causing patients to be less willing to seek psychiatric help or accept psychiatric treatment; hampering the recruitment and retention of quality professionals to work with people with serious mental illness; and jeopardizing the funding of psychiatric treatment and research."

Dr. Malik and colleagues say there is a "great need for collaboration" between the mental health sector and film and television industries to explore potential for positive and more accurate portrayals of ECT.

Professor Walter agrees. Mental health professionals, he said, can help to positively influence cinema portrays of mental illness and psychiatry "by advocating for documentaries and fictional films that accurately depict people with mental illness [and] joining multidisciplinary groups, alongside people with mental illness, their families, and media professionals, to study and combat the deleterious effects of negative media images and societal stigma."

Professor Walter also would like to see mental health professionals take a role in "encouraging self-help consumer and family groups to monitor and respond vigorously to the media as concerned citizens and paying customers, liaising with and providing consultation to filmmakers, promoting recognition of authentic dramatic presentations of psychiatric disorder and its treatment, participating in community education campaigns, [and] encouraging public testimony by respected celebrities with experiences of mental illness and treatment."

Dr. Malik and colleagues and Professor Walter have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2011 Annual Meeting: Abstract NR10-15. Presented May 17, 2011.

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