TV Gets Into the Loony

Hollywood is into crazy. Mental illness, madness, obsessive behavior, multiple personalities, schizophrenia -- you name it, it's been depicted by nearly every big star, including Robert DeNiro, Sally Field, Leonardo DiCaprio, Anthony Hopkins and Barbra Streisand.

Every once in awhile, they get it right. But more often they get it terribly wrong. And the problem with that, experts say, is that it creates misconceptions and stigma for those afflicted.

Now that the small screen has gotten into madness, viewers can look forward to weekly visits of characters with some form of mental illness. Along with Tony Soprano's visits to the psychiatrist to delve into his demons, newer shows like TNT's "The Closer" and USA's "Monk" portray compulsive behavior with differing degrees of success.

In "The Closer," Kyra Sedgwick's character has something of a food obsession. As the credits roll and the case is solved, Sedgwick's Los Angeles police detective Brenda Johnson, lovingly devours a chocolate doughnut, more specifically, a Ring Ding, wrapped in foil. End scene.

The way the directors have decided to show the food obsession is to usually linger on a food item. There is no discussion about eating or obsessing over eating.

Tony Shalhoub's character Adrian Monk in "Monk" has obsessive compulsive disorder.

Both characters' obsessive behavior in some ways fuels their success. Monk's attention to detail helps him solve cases. Johnson's food obsession in some ways fills a void, something people with food obsessions and eating disorders often say.

"One of the things that film can do well is to capture visually the internal experience of someone with a mental illness," said Glen O. Gabbard, professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

OCD groups have taken on "Monk" as a kind of poster boy.

"His success is tied to his OCD and dependent upon it," noted Patricia Perkins, executive director of the Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation. "And I think the show is very funny."

Perkins, who has OCD, said the writers of the Emmy Award-winning show do a good job at giving Monk true OCD-style symptoms.

The disorder, characterized by superstitious beliefs, excessive worrying and doubts, manifests itself in extreme hand-washing, touching, counting, cleaning and straightening items out of order. It affects one in 50 adults in the United States, according to statistics compiled by the foundation.

"For entertainment purposes, they give him more symptoms than people normally would have," Perkins said. "But they do a very good job of using the symptoms in a way that doesn't offend."

Many times, though, the depictions are stereotypical and can be detrimental for people with a disorder, perpetuating stereotypes and stigmatizing those afflicted.

"There are so many countless times that we see it done badly," Gabbard says.

Gabbard, author of "Psychiatry and the Cinema" and "The Psychology of the Sopranos," says that, unfortunately, it's easier to name bad characterizations of disorders than good ones.

"The characterization of Howard Hughes' OCD in 'The Aviator' is an example of something that is totally over the top and unrealistic," he said. "The tendency to make it over the top is logical since it is more theatrical. But it does a disservice."

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