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The Most Important Message of the The Breakfast Club Is a Lie

02/19/2015 06:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015
Desiree Navarro via Getty Images

"When you grow up, your heart dies." Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) in The Breakfast Club.

The Breakfast Club captured the teen angst of a generation, delving into themes such as stereotyping, the stigma of mental illness and bullying. At the core of this movie was this central thesis: "When you grow up, your heart dies." This sentiment has been echoed for generations, from The Who's "Hope I die before I get old," to Pearl Jam's "All that's sacred comes from youth."

But as we approach the 30 year anniversary of the movie, we notice that a funny thing happened after we all graduated -- we actually learned the lessons of The Breakfast Club and made sure our hearts didn't die. And we did so by taking the rebellion of youth and trying to tackle the social problems addressed in the movie.

The characters in The Breakfast Club were originally presented as caricatures: a "brain," (Brian Johnson played by Anthony Michael Hall), an "athlete" (Andrew Clark played by Emilio Estevez), a "basket case" (Allison Reynolds played by Ally Sheedy), a "princess," (Claire Standish played by Molly Ringwald) and a "criminal" (John Bender played by Judd Nelson). As the characters spend more time together, they realize that they transcend these stereotypes and recognize that they have much in common.

The most obvious problem The Breakfast Club addresses is stereotyping. We've begun to understand that "stereotype threat" is harmful to children and adults alike; even seemingly benign stereotyping can be harmful to education and development. For example, one study showed that priming a student to be aware of their identity as an "athlete" actually reduced test score performance. As a result, substantial work is being undertaken to reduce stereotyping based on a range of domains including race, gender, sexuality and gender identity. In fact, Ally Sheedy has been honored for her work addressing discrimination against LGBT people.

The stigma attached to mental illness has also changed since the film came out. In 1999 the U.S. Surgeon General labeled stigma as perhaps the biggest barrier to mental health care. Research suggests that the majority of people hold negative attitudes and stereotypes towards people with mental illness. From a young age, children will refer to others as "crazy" or "weird;" these terms are used commonly throughout adulthood as well.

Often the negative stereotypes involve perceptions that people with mental illness are dangerous. This perception is fueled by media stories that paint violent perpetrators as "mentally ill" without providing the context of the broad spectrum of mental illness. This bias is not limited to people who are either uninformed or disconnected from people with mental illness; in fact, health care providers and even some mental health professionals hold these very same stereotypes. For years now groups such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the Rosalynn Carter Foundation have fought to reduce stigma. And these efforts have had some success. Recent legislation holds promise that people with mental health issues will receive care comparable to those with physical health issues. For example, The Affordable Care Act of 2013 expanded upon the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, providing more possibility that mental health conditions will be covered on par with physical health conditions.

We are also listening to The Breakfast Club's message about bullying. In the movie, we are confronted with several forms of bullying, from John Bender taking Brian Johnson's lunch to Andrew Clark describing a savage attack on another student for which he receives detention. We further see bullying from teachers as Principal Vernon (played by the late Paul Gleason) threatens physical assault against John Bender and locks him in a closet. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has labeled bullying as a major public health problem. Research on bullying -- broadly defined as repeated aggressive acts in which there is an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and victim -- demonstrates that victims of bullying experience stress-related physical health issues such as head and stomach aches and long-lasting mental health problems in the form of depression, anxiety and, in the most severe cases, suicide. And we are doing what we can to respond to this crisis, with several innovative prevention programs, outstanding advocacy groups, and anti-bullying laws in almost every state.

One of the most compelling examples of change in societal attitudes towards bullying is how bullying was portrayed in the recent movie 21 Jump Street. Channing Tatum plays a former bully who enjoys the social dominance and high self-esteem associated with bullying. But upon arriving at a new school, his bullying is universally met with scorn and derision. As one reviewer puts it, the movie shows that "being a bully is not a good look." Similarly, one would assume that in the current environment the bullying behavior of Andrew Clark and Principal Vernon would be met with expulsion and legal action.

To be sure, we are only at the beginning of addressing these issues. We are nowhere near where we need to be on issues such as stereotyping, stigma of mental illness or bullying -- much more needs to be done. But we are making progress.

Because thanks in part to The Breakfast Club, no matter how old we get, our hearts are still alive.