Humanizing the “Mentally Ill”

"Infinitely Polar Bear" as a compassionate and triumphant success

Posted Jun 17, 2015

For decades, scholars have documented the stigmatizing effects associated with labeling people as “mentally ill” (see, for instance, Farina, 1998; Fink & Tasman, 1992). Once individuals are tagged with a psychiatric label, life becomes even more of an uphill battle—often making something that is tragic even worse.

Such labels as bipolar, schizophrenic, clinically depressed often have the capacity to put someone immediately into an outgroup (e.g., that person is “schizo”just nuts—you don’t want anything to do with that person). Life is incredibly hard for those with significant mental health issues, and all the research shows that being labeled as having a “disorder” only makes things worse. Once we see someone as fitting into the category of “mentally ill,” there is a major stigma that often, unwittingly, clouds our social perceptions and behaviors toward that individual.

For these reasons, it’s hard to humanize individuals who have significant mental health issues. This said, if you want to see a great exception to this general rule, you should go out and see Infinitely Polar Bear (coming out June 19). This film, directed by Maya Forbes in a major directing debut, portrays the true story of a father (Bostonian Cameron Stuart) who is severely afflicted with bipolar issues—and the true story of his family (including a wife and two daughters) who love him and fear him in the same breath.

Mark Ruffalo (who ironically plays Bruce Banner [AKA The Hulk], perhaps the prototype of a bipolar character, in the Avengers) is simply brilliant in playing Stuart. Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll just say that life is extremely hard for all members of this struggling family—and the film shows all angles—to the point that the viewer can see so many difficult situations from all perspectives. When Cameron tries to bring his daughters into the mansion that his great grandparents lived in decades prior, you’re able to fully empathize with Cameron (this was my family’s house, damn it!), the present homeowner (get out of here you creep!), and the two extremely normal kids (Dad—that was the most embarrassing thing ever!).

And there you have it, raised by the real Cameron Stuart, having experienced this troubled upbringing first-hand, Maya Forbes (who brilliantly cast her daughter Imogene Wolodarsky as young Maya) brings humanity to a mentally ill individual in a way reminiscent of Cuckoo’s Nest and A Beautiful Mind, as my fellow PT blogger John Gartner put it during a recent special screening of Infinitely Polar Bear.

Want to see what the world looks like from the perspective of someone with “bipolar?” Want to see what the world looks like to those closest to someone labeled as such? Do you believe in the human spirit and want evidence that even society’s most stigmatized are just as human as the rest of us? Check out this cinematic gem—which may well have the capacity to change how we conceptualize mental illness.

Four stars and two thumbs up!


Farina, A. (1998) Stigma. In Handbook of Social Functioning in Schizophrenia (eds K. T. Mueser & N. Tarrier). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Fink, P. J. & Tasman, A. (1992) Stigma and Mental Illness. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.