Augustine: ‘Midsommar’ grossly misrepresents bipolar disorder

Kathryn Augustine, Assistant Opinion Editor

Content warning: This column includes descriptions of mental illness and suicide and includes a description of a death by suicide in the film “Midsommar.”

Historically, the genre of horror films has associated mental illness with violence. The villains who commit gruesome crimes are diagnosed with a variety of stigmatized disorders, and the illness is portrayed as the sole precipitant of that behavior. Unfortunately, the folk horror film “Midsommar,” released in July 2019, is no different.

The film opens with the protagonist Dani Ardor reading an email from her sister, Terri, who has bipolar disorder. Terri ominously alludes to her hopelessness and a desire to kill herself and her parents. Naturally, Dani is shaken by the message and reaches out to her boyfriend, Christian Hughes. Rather than acknowledging the possibility that Terri and her parents are in danger, Christian complains that Terri is a burden and reiterates that her behavior is not out of character.

Christian’s automatic assumption that Terri’s message is a ploy for attention is troubling. He assumes that, since Terri has expressed suicidal thoughts in the past, yet has not acted on them, she poses no threat to herself. This misconception is erroneous. When a person alludes to taking their own life, that needs to be taken seriously, not dismissed, and action should be taken to ensure their safety.

As a result of Christian’s nonchalance, Dani attempts to suppress her panic. The consequence of disregarding people at risk of suicide is appropriately illustrated — Terri later kills herself.

However, accurate portrayal of mental illness ends here. The audience quickly learns that Terri murdered her parents prior to ending her own life. Her homicidal behavior implies a connection between bipolar disorder and interpersonal violence, when in reality, no such connection exists. The film uses bipolar disorder as a crutch to explain her character, which grossly misrepresents the mental health condition.

A 2010 study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden suggests that bipolar disorder does not increase the risk of violent crime. Bipolar disorder’s overrepresentation in violent crime statistics is instead explained by concurrent substance abuse. Twenty-one percent of patients with bipolar disorder and severe substance abuse were convicted of a violent crime, while only 5 percent of patients with bipolar disorder alone were convicted of a violent crime. This illustrates that bipolar disorder alone is not responsible for interpersonal violence; other factors are at play.

Suicidal individuals can often perceive themselves as worthless burdens and believe that their loved ones will be happier without their presence. This directly contradicts the notion that suicide is motivated by selfishness and that suicidal individuals want to kill others. Generally, the motivation behind suicide is not bringing suffering to others, but rather, ending personal suffering.

Bipolar disorder is a stigmatized, misunderstood disorder outside of the media industry. People assume that bipolar disorder can be boiled down to mood swings, shifting from happy to depressed in a matter of seconds. People assume that all individuals with bipolar disorder exhibit the same symptoms and patterns of behavior. People assume that individuals with bipolar disorder pose an imminent threat and are not to be associated with.

Therefore, when the media perpetuates these myths, misconceptions are further cemented and confirmed.

The media has a greater influence on views on mental illness than people will admit. It’s blatantly irresponsible to present a character with bipolar disorder murdering their parents without any background context on that individual. Depicting murder and other forms of violence in horror films that are present in today’s society is not necessarily problematic. However, I staunchly oppose horror films that villainize two-dimensional characters suffering from mental illness instead of presenting the relationship between mental illness and violence in a nuanced manner.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.