What Ferris Bueller and Other '80s Movies Got Wrong About Mental Health

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Screenshot of a clip from 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' on YouTube. (grauerwolfgehenkt on YouTube)

David Singer clicks through iTunes looking for "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," a film he watched at least 12 times when it first came out in 1986. He was in his early 20s then.

“You’re old,” his younger daughter mutters, as she nudges her dad to choose the HD version.

Singer has high hopes as he settles in to watch the film with his wife and their two daughters, Emma, 13, and Elliot, 16, at their home in San Francisco.

“I want them to fall in love with it, just the way I did,” he says, as the opening scenes begin to roll. “Getting them to watch a movie from my younger days is always a challenge. They look slower and not as much in focus.”

Singer is like so many other people who came of age in the 1980s and idolized Ferris Bueller. For them, it will always be a fun movie about a kid faking being sick and skipping school.

“He was just having a load of fun,” Singer says, remembering Ferris at the Cubs game and singing on the float in downtown Chicago. “Everyone has a friend like his buddy, who’s kind of a sad sack.”

But more than 30 years later, Cameron Frye, and his friendship with Ferris, look different through the eyes of today’s teens. They notice different themes and different dynamics. Watching the film from today’s perspective and applying today’s vocabulary, it’s clear that Cameron wasn’t just a sad sack — he was depressed and anxious.

“I’m dying,” he groans in his first scene, cocooned in bed, staring at the ceiling. To which Ferris responds, “You’re not dying. You just can’t think of anything good to do.”

Throughout the film, Cameron’s fear is the foil to Ferris’ free spirit.

When they borrow Cameron’s dad’s precious Ferrari and things go wrong, Cameron “goes berserk,” in Ferris’ words, then spends the next several scenes in a catatonic state.

“Maybe he’s really sick,” Ferris says, nibbling an Oreo in a hot tub while Cameron stares straight ahead over the swimming pool. “Maybe he isn’t just torturing himself.”

Then Cameron tumbles into the pool, fully clothed, and sinks to the bottom. Ferris dives in to save him. It’s an ambiguous move -- in the end, a prank, but with hints of suicide.

“Ferris Bueller, you're my hero,” Cameron says sarcastically.

From Hero to Jerk

When David Singer watched this film in the '80s, he did think of Ferris as a hero. But that wasn’t his daughter Elliot’s first reaction.

“I kinda hated him,” she says to her dad. “Ferris kinda sucks.”

He orders Cameron to get out of bed and pick him up, forces him to take his dad’s car, then dismisses Cameron’s concerns and blows him off as a worrier.

“He’s a very fun character,” Elliot says of Ferris. “But he’s also kind of an asshole.”

Plus, this whole taking-a-day-off-from-school business, pretending to be sick -- that’s not how it goes down in her world. Elliot is a junior at Lick-Wilmerding, a private high school in San Francisco with a reputation for being high pressure.

“People come to school sick because, honestly, at the type of school I’m at, it’s more stressful not to be at school,” she says. “Going and having a fun day is really fun. But it's also not fun – the amount of stuff you miss in a day.”

Elliot has had her own struggles with anxiety. It makes sense that she would pick up on different themes in the film than her dad and his generation.

Since "Ferris Bueller" was made, teenage suicide rates have spiked, especially among young girls, according to CDC data. And 70% of today’s teens view anxiety and depression as a major problem, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center.

“The viewing public is much more attuned to mental illness and the problems confronting people who are coping with mental illness,” says Danny Wedding, a psychologist from Berkeley, who wrote the textbook "Movies and Mental Illness." He is working on the fifth edition now.

“In the 1980s, there might have been a tendency to see these as just rebellious teenagers misbehaving and causing trouble,” he says. “Now, we're more likely to be sensitive to the mental illness themes and to see Cameron as somebody coping with depression.”

And the Ferrari? Wedding sees it as a metaphor for all the times his father failed to respond to Cameron’s needs.

Film representations began to change in the late 1980s and '90s with films like "Rain Man," which started explicitly addressing mental health, Wedding says. As public awareness grew, films got better. As films got better, public awareness grew more.

“One of the things that happened is that directors increasingly turned to mental health consultants to advise on films, and that happened in the '90s,” he says.

Movie Myths Then and Now

But before that, movies were rife with subtle, subliminal messages about mental illness, often through sidekick characters like Cameron. All sorts of negative stereotypes were promulgated, Wedding says. He boils them down to three common myths.

Myth No. 1: People become mentally ill because their parents treated them badly.

"Sybil" and "Carrie" are examples of this, as are all the horror films of the '80s, like "Halloween" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street." In that film, Freddy Krueger was the villain that slashed people in their dreams. Legend has it he was conceived when a nun at a mental hospital was locked in a room full of criminally insane men.

“They said that Freddy is the offspring of a thousand maniacs,” Wedding says.

Myth No. 2: People become mentally ill because of some traumatic event that happened.

Think of Robin Williams, who plays a character with schizophrenia in "The Fisher King," Wedding says: “His symptoms develop after a traumatic event in which his girlfriend is killed in a restaurant.”

Some myths have persisted, like No. 3: Love will conquer mental illness.

You see this everywhere, Wedding says: "A Beautiful Mind," "Mozart and the Whale," "Benny & Joon."

“You leave the theater thinking that Joon is gonna be OK because she's found her true love,” he says. “But the fact is that schizophrenia is an illness that is chronic and cyclical, and oftentimes people who are loved very much by their families still have to grapple with the challenges of mental illness. They still get sick. Love is important. It's not sufficient.”

It’s like that in "Ferris Bueller," too. Cameron has a breakthrough at the end of the film. He decides he is not going to live in fear anymore. He is going to stand up to his dad. And all it took was a day off from school with his best friend.

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Today’s teenagers, Emma and Elliot Singer, say, "Yeah right."

“It’s not realistic,” Emma says.

“I kind of agree,” Elliot replies. “I think it was like an abrupt romanticized transition for him.”

Their dad makes his case, tries to bring them around. He says the themes from the movie back then are the same as they are now.

“We have different words and maybe we talk about it more with more specificity or more transparency, but they were all still there, right?” he says. “Anxiety for teenagers, anxiety about the future, where do you go to college. It's age-old.”

Elliot says, I dunno. It was funny. Maybe if she watches it another 11 times, she’ll see what her dad sees.