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The Media's Portrayal of Mental Illness – Stigmatization and Stereotypes

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

By Mana Ravenel

It is no secret that mass media is incredibly powerful, in the sense that it has the ability to influence, shape, and impact the general public’s views of different topics. It plants ideas of a multitude of things into the minds of society from a young age. And although it has made getting information to a large audience easier and more effective, with great power comes an even greater responsibility. The media’s portrayals of people with different affairs can result in the categorization and stereotyping of such matters. This is especially evident when looking at the way the media represents people with mental illnesses or psychiatric disorders, and how people view them.

The discussion of mental illness is one that is much easier to have in current times. While it was once considered a taboo topic, conversations about mental illnesses are a lot more common today, seeing as communities in general have a better understanding and wider acceptance of it. The intolerance and blatant dehumanization of those dealing with such illnesses has gone down significantly, contrary to how society treated suffering people during the birth of the first psychiatric hospital. Despite this great change, those with mental illnesses continue to face heavy discrimination –– a result of the public’s inaccurate perceptions and views of them. People who are not interested in psychology –– or have never taken a class in which psychological disorders were ever mentioned –– are heavily influenced by the media’s portrayals. This is the case for many people, thus the media’s portrayals of mental illness –– regardless of how exaggerated or downplayed –– are constantly being understood as truth by the general public as a whole.

As psychology is not required in most school’s curriculums –– aside from those taking it as an elective –– the media has become the public’s main source of information about mental illnesses. This being said, the inaccuracies presented about psychiatric disorders and the ways in which it can affect someone are taken as truth. Many people with mental illnesses are believed to be incredibly violent and dangerous, leading them to become outcasts. According to Michael Yao, M.D., M.P.H. –– a fourth year resident at New York University –– “ presentations often confirm and reinforce popular misconceptions about mental illness that only serve to deepen fear and stigma.” Oftentimes, news articles covering severe or violent crimes will have headlines that put a heavy emphasis on the possible psychiatric disorders of the perpetrators. This instills fear into the community, especially those of whom have limited knowledge or understanding of how mental illnesses can affect people and their behaviors. Although some criminals do have mental illnesses, it is unfair to label each and every single person with one as dangerous. While fictional characters identified to have a mental illness are portrayed to be incredibly violent and aggressive, in truth, "...those with mental illness are more likely to harm themselves, or find themselves in harm’s way." In addition to being unfair, portrayals such as this are incredibly inaccurate and damaging.

The media’s imprecise and flawed portraits of mental illness result in stigmatization and stereotypes, often leading to those suffering from mental illnesses to experience great discrimination. With how influential the media is, and how vague the public’s knowledge of psychiatric disorders is, people have to deal with discrimination from society, friends, and family. This can put additional stress onto them, taking a significant toll on their mental health. Furthermore, the stigmatization and stereotyping surrounding mental illnesses can discourage people from reaching out to seek help. Without getting the help they need, people suffering can become trapped, feeling helpless and lost. No one wants to be labeled as “crazy” or have their sufferings and pain be mocked. Nor do they want to be seen as incapable and incompetent. With the constant reminder that they are seen as manic, violent, and as a danger-loving “freak,” or the similarly inaccurate characteristic of head-empty, child-like free spirits, those with mental illnesses start to feel like even more of an outcast. The media’s misleading stereotypes already separate those with mental illnesses from those who do not have them, resulting in a this vs. us situation. Those with mental illnesses are as important to society as we are, and it is cruel to discriminate against them based off of their psychiatric disorders.

As I previously mentioned, the media has come a long way with their portrayals of people with mental illness, but there is still so much that needs to be done. Although the two of us as individuals can not do much to change the way in which the media stereotypes mental health, it only takes two to start a conversation. Take the initiative to educate yourself on different mental illnesses, keeping in mind that each person reacts and is affected differently. By educating yourself, you are then able to distinguish reality vs. fiction, as well as truth vs. stereotypes. When you happen to stumble across an inaccuracy in information about mental illness whilst with company, point it out! Have a conversation! It is important for us to take care of one another –– friends, family, acquaintances –– and even strangers in our communities. Taking a few minutes of your time to educate yourself or others on the stereotypes and stigmatization of mental illness, as portrayed by the media, can go on a long way. Continue to learn, and help share insight on this important matter with your friends and family. We have all fallen into the media’s trap –– believing false narratives written to spread fear about mental illness –– and only we can pull ourselves out of it.

Written by writer Mana Ravenel

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