On Mental Health

Does “Split” promote negative stigma and impressions of Mental Illness?

So I wrote this article last weekend and meant to post it up straight away as a reaction to all the internet chatter I read regarding M. Night Shyamalan’s new film “Split,” which I watched on Sunday night. However I got distracted by book writing and other less important stuff, and so it is a week late and a week behind all the hype and all the controversy.

Anyway.. I hope that it is still interesting and vaguely noteworthy!

First off, I will say that I absolutely loved the film. I thought James McAvoy was startlingly, terrifyingly brilliant as Kevin of 24 personalities, a character suffering from an extreme and severe case of Dis-associative Identity Disorder.

Here, however, I’m not going to review the film, or the condition itself, but instead explore a statement I read in an article on Reddit which asked: “Does ‘Split’ promote negative stigma and impressions of Mental Illness?”

Simply put, my response is- “No, it does not.”

As someone who has suffered schizophrenia firsthand, I feel that the film works really well to sum up the complete and utter nightmare that a person can go through with a diagnosis of extreme mental illness.

I understand, before everyone starts nagging, that Kevin isn’t meant to be the victim of the film, Casey, Claire and Marcia are; but, coming from someone who instinctively sympathises with portrayals of people with mental health conditions, I am going to put it out there and state that Kevin is also a victim in this film.

Not the horde, not Dennis or Patricia, but Kevin.

For me, “Split” is a representation of the horror of severe and debilitating mental illness; an illustration of the power these psychological conditions can wield- and I think M. Night Shyamalan expertly directs it.

However, this positive opinion does rest for me, on one scene, and one line of dialogue. If this scene and dialogue hadn’t been included, I’m not certain I would have been so very impressed.

The scene I am referring to takes place about 2/3 of the way through, and is the first and only time the audience actually gets to meet the antagonist of the story. We finally get to meet Kevin, the man who Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig, the rest of the hoard, and Dr Fletcher are apparently trying to protect and look out for.

The man who is, apparently, the focal point of the entire film.

He asks Casey, after being called out and into the light by her, what is happening, what the date is, and whether or not he killed Dr Fletcher, whose body is laying in the next room. When she replies in the affirmation, when she tells him of the horror occurring at “his hands-” what does he reply?

He simply says “kill me.

For me, this was the clincher, this was the moment when I knew Shyamalan should be applauded for creating not just another tired psycho cliche, or another deranged axe-wielder, but actually a deep and thoroughly considered representation of a person suffering the most horrific torture at the hands of their mental illness.

I had expected a dramatised and perhaps stigma encouraging “psycho”, but what we got was something so breathtakingly real I was blew away.

For, up until that moment, the audience had not been meeting Kevin- they had been meeting the many faces and facets of his condition. These different faces and aspects were apparently working, tirelessly and devotedly, to protect Kevin; to look after him and keep him alive.

This is what we hear, all the way through, from these various different “characters,” and ultimately, what we are hearing here, is the voice of the illness.

Kevin, when he finally gets allowed a brief moment in the light, is haggard, haunted, weary and resigned. He tells Casey where the gun is; he instructs her on how she can kill him with it.

But then, before she gets a chance and before Kevin can express himself any more he is whisked back away, sucked back under and into the darkness and the madness that has taken over his mind.

He gets to live and actually direct his own fate for about two minutes- and then he is easily and flippantly smothered, drowned out with no care and resigned to the darkness again. It seemed to happen with as much ease as it would take to flip a light switch.

I found this poignantly and startling moving, and in that moment, for me, M. Night Shyamalan proved he wasn’t just peddling to stereotypes and stigma reinforcing representations, but was instead interested in creating as genuine and developed a portrayal as possible of a character suffering from severe mental illness.

For, although I haven’t suffered DID, or anything so violent as this, I have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and this is definitely a diagnosis which has the potential to f*** with your head with quite monumental scale. There were moments in this film where I found myself cringing with, IMO, the accuracy of this portrayal of mental illness.

It was clear, by about half way through the film that Dennis was in charge of the horde, with help from Patricia and Hedwig. These three ‘characters,’ were directing the horde, and subsequently Kevin- Kevin was, quite literally, being controlled by his disease.

I think, on really bad days, I can relate to that sense of being out of control; I can feel as though I’m trapped in my own mind. Not by other personas per see, but by intense, contradictory and often useless seeming sensations and thought processes.

I can feel like I take a back seat in my own life and my own thinking, like all this stuff is going on, despite the fact that I don’t want it to be, and despite the fact that I categorically know that there is absolutely no point to any of it.

These experiences and ‘symptoms’ can be madly distressing, disorientating and, at times, debilitating. So, although I do not suffer DID, I could definitely relate to the feelings of powerlessness and resigned weary submission which Shyamalan created in Kevin, in his two minutes of actual air time; his two minutes “in the light.”

His heartbreaking line, “kill me;” was the only one which would have had any substance at that moment, it was the only one which would have made sense at that stage in the film, and at that stage in his grim descent into utter degradation and horror.

Shyamalan should be applauded for not just creating a stereotype, not just creating another belly flesh eating, bat-shit crazy “psycho” for the big screen; but instead working to put together a considered, three dimensional portrayal of a man suffering a violent disease, and all of the horror and nightmarish hell that would entail.


7 thoughts on “Does “Split” promote negative stigma and impressions of Mental Illness?

  1. Not having seen the film, the only interest for me was your insights into the ‘horrors’ that mental illness can bring.

    When you say, “Kevin was, quite literally, being controlled by his disease.” Isn’t this the case with any disease, even the common cold? It’s a time when we retreat to bed and we can’t do the things we want to, or might like. The disease has taken us over, albeit not to the point of total degradation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm yes.. but it’s a little different! A cold might confine you to bed, but schiz confines you to bed with a knife to your throat.. if you get the slightly sketchy analogy I’m using! Also, it’s a great film, would recommend; although it is fairly dark in places- just a warning!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As far as disease is concerned, we are overwhelmed by it. The problem with schiz – or any other mental ailment – is that it does so not through a physical incapacity that affects the mind, but through the mind itself.

        Unrestrained from the physicalities of the body, the mind can imagine anything – and in imagining anything, will. The other end of this stick is the nature of fear, and it is this which is the controlling element here.

        People wouldn’t be mentally ill if they didn’t fear that which overwhelms them. They’d be scientists and engineers.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I cried when Kevin surfaced .. James McAvoy plays tormented parts really well, I think he has experienced it in his real life.. I read that ‘filth’ and the character he played was close to his heart..

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Same- it was so very sad.. i was really affected, i guess because i felt like i could KIND OF understand that feeling of weary powerlessness and defeat. Yes, James McAvoy is absolutely amazing- i really liked him before this film but this has kinda confirmed it for me 🙂 Filth was awesome as well.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. That was it wasn’t it, the weary powerless, and he just didn’t deserve that suffering.. Raw feelings I think remembering my son before schizophrenia.. though he is just as amazing like you.. you have so much insight, I’d love to see your drawings 💜


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