After Kanye West announced his presidential bid and issued a series of bizarre statements and tweets, his wife, Kim Kardashian, asked for two things: compassion and empathy.
“Anyone who has [bipolar disorder] or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how complicated and painful it is to understand,” she wrote on Instagram, noting that onlookers who aren’t intimately familiar with mental illness can be judgmental, lacking compassion. “[W]e as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole, however we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it most.”
Love or hate Kim Kardashian West, the reality star mogul is right: Society is terribly hypocritical about mental illness, and sometimes outright cruel. Encouragingly, a new film can help us all do better.
“Words on Bathroom Walls” presents a wholesome, emotional journey of life with an incurable mental illness. During his senior year of high school, Adam (played by Charlie Plummer) is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Like many who struggle with the disease, Adam sees and hears people who aren’t real. He has trouble deciphering reality from the figures in his head, and that struggle affects his mother, stepfather, and everyone else around him. Medications help, but they come with crippling side effects that hinder Adam’s ability to pursue his greatest source of joy: cooking.
After starting at a new Catholic school, Adam falls in love with an outspoken, intelligent girl named Maya (played by Taylor Russell). While the two form a real connection, Adam is embarrassed to tell her about his diagnosis. Like many who suffer from mental illness, he keeps it a secret.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that nearly one in five Americans lives with mental illness. Approximately 3.5 million people in the United States are diagnosed with schizophrenia, making it one of the leading causes of disability. Three-quarters of those with schizophrenia develop the illness between 16 and 25 years of age.
Schizophrenia is particularly tragic because treatment is usually lifelong, and there is no cure. Those diagnosed with it can appear confused, out-of-touch, depressed, and even crazy. Many end up homeless. The illness affects not just individuals, but entire families, tearing some of them apart.
Life with schizophrenia is ripe for storytelling. There are moments to laugh at, cry over, mourn, and celebrate. But rarely does Hollywood approach such an important, complex topic.
“A Beautiful Mind,” inspired by events in the life of famed mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. (played by Russell Crowe), was a rare exception. Cultivating compassion and empathy for mental illness takes more than that, however, particularly to reach younger generations. “Words on Bathroom Walls” is an encouraging development. It’s “A Beautiful Mind,” but for all ages.
More than just entertainment, “Words on Bathroom Walls” provides a poignant look at a teenager’s life with a disease that we still know very little about and struggle to understand. It’s a movie parents can watch with their teenagers and use as a starting point to talk about mental health. It reminds us our neighbors suffer in ways we often never know, and it presents an opportunity for the millions touched by this disease to open up, if they so choose.
At the end of the film, Adam eventually learns he doesn’t have to let his diagnosis define him, despite it continuing to affect him. The rest of us learn that we, too, have a role to play in helping people like Adam to live a more normal life.
To do our part to fight stigmas against mental illness, we must first understand what life with mental health issues entails. Then, as Kardashian entreats, we must do more than pay lip service to having compassion and empathy for those it afflicts. “Words on Bathroom Walls” is an honest, entertaining, and emotional depiction of what that looks like. For watching it, we’ll all be better off.
“Words on Bathroom Walls” will be available starting Aug. 21 in select theaters.