Project PERFECT meets 'Out of Blue': Changing perceptions of mental health difficulties

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“With my team I investigate both costs and benefits of those behavioural manifestations identified as marks of mental illness. We also examine the often negative and implicit stereotypes targeting those who have a psychiatric diagnosis.”  


The 10th October is a day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma. Do we still need a mental health awareness day? Are the behavioural manifestations of ill-health still stigmatised?

We have learnt about the pervasiveness of mental health struggles. It is of course true that we all have a mental health to take care of, although it is not trivial that for some this is a task that absorbs all their energy and prevents them from living the life they wanted. As Charlotte Walker wonderfully put it, pimples and malignant melanoma are both skin problems but only melanoma is life-threatening. Recognising our own struggles should not come at the expense of distinguishing minor hiccups from major crises.

We have also learnt that we can succeed in life in spite of our serious mental health struggles, when we receive the right sort of support and overcome the obstacles created by our health crises and by the sluggishness of the societal responses to such crises. There is a wider acknowledgement that a psychiatric diagnosis is not necessarily damning, thanks to the influence of clever mental health campaigns and the testimony of people who opened up about their mental health issues after attaining success in a variety of competitive fields, from entertainment to elite sport.

What has not yet sunk in is that we may succeed in some contexts because of our mental health struggles. The behaviour that puzzles us can be a temporarily or partially adaptive response to an emergency that remains hidden from view. This is what I have set out to explore with project PERFECT, funded by the European Research Council. With my team I investigate both costs and benefits of those behavioural manifestations identified as marks of mental illness. We also examine the often negative and implicit stereotypes targeting those who have a psychiatric diagnosis.

How can unusual experiences and behaviour be seen in the wider context of our lives? Representations of mental health struggles in art, literature, and cinema have a wide-reaching influence on public perceptions. This weekend Out of Blue by UK director Carol Morley premieres at the London Film Festival, and I feel it will be a force for good in bringing about the change we need. In the film, detective Mike Hoolihan (played by Patricia Clarkson) investigates the death of a prominent astrophysicist and finds the investigation personally distressing. The film makes a very powerful case for seeing Mike as a person, not as a brain stuck in a body. Mike’s experiences contribute to her failures and achievements, showing how mental health struggles can be at the same time debilitating and enlightening. This is what Carol Morley says about the movie:

“It was very important to me in making Out of Blue that the experiences Mike goes through are manifested as ones that are not easily pigeon-holed or defined. For me, so many popular representations of mental health become quite simplified, and I felt that I wanted to create a person that was undergoing something that was mysterious to her, and not easily categorised to herself or others. I think there can be the instinct to want to diagnose a mental health condition, so that we can feel we are in control somehow, either as the person experiencing it, or to an outsider. But living with and surviving mental health experiences are likely to be far more complex.

“What I wanted to achieve in the film was to be authentic to repercussions of traumatic and psychological lived experiences, but also to take Mike on a journey of discovery, so that her experiences are not merely ones of suffering, but they actually allow her to see herself in a different light. Instead of remaining in the dark - her difficult experiences actually bring her into the light. I guess it was important for me not to just create on film an entirely threatening and frightening experience of mental health difficulties! In this way, I wanted to give hope, and emphasise they are an everyday part of life and our lives - and are something that we can learn to live with, and can sometimes, if given the opportunity to be explored and not stigmatised, help us live more meaningful lives.”

If we learn that mental health struggles are not just a glitch that needs to be fixed, then perhaps we won’t need another World Mental Health Day.