Strange Voices, Mental Health in 1987

In the days before Lifetime worried that its audience would fall victim to online dating, ABC, NBC, and CBS produced and aired films about highly topical issues: eating disorders, child abduction, and mental illness.

In 1987 NBC aired Strange Voices, a film about schizophrenia in the age of Reagan. Strange Voices stars Nancy McKeon and Valerie Harper; McKeon is a family’s eldest daughter, a bright architecture student whose life unravels at the onset of schizophrenia. Harper is the beleaguered mother, trying to hold her family together while struggling to get her daughter care.

The New York Times called the film “too much, too late,” and the film only briefly touches on the difficulties of receiving quality health care, but the stink of the late ’80s permeates everything.

The films failure to achieve greatness goes beyond McKeon’s irrepressible collection of blazers. (It’s too much Jo!) While the film takes mental illness seriously its storytelling around Nicole’s breakdown feels heavy-handed and perhaps inaccurate. The film makes an effort to look at how untreated illness can affect people: Nicole quietly slips out of a halfway home and quickly becomes homeless, arrested, and very ill. Nicole’s parents, played by Harper and Stephen Macht, struggle to find treatment for their daughter. Her mother joins a support group, allowing the writers to pump a minute full of statistics about mental health care in 1987.

But the film suddenly concludes after Harper tours a home run by a well-adjusted man diagnosed with schizophrenia, giving hope to Nicole’s mother that in several years Nicole’s name will come up, maybe get a spot, and maybe live a normal life.

Wow, that’s not hopeful at all.

Strange Voices is streaming on Netflix.

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