Mental Health Representation in Media

By: Snehal Shinh

The issue of mental health is one that is starting to be talked about more. While awareness is great and much needed to stop the stigmatization of mental illnesses, the media tends to generalize and incorrectly portray mental health. More often than not, many mental illnesses are shown in a very negative light. This in turn impacts the way society and even mental health professionals view mental disorders. 

Most information that the average person gets on mental health comes from the media. In fact, a study done by the National Mental Health Association shows that 70 percent get their information off of television, 58 percent from newspapers, 51 percent from TV news, 34 percent from news magazines, and 25 percent from the internet. This study proves how much control the media has over public views of mental health. 

When depicting those with mental illnesses, the media falls back onto many stereotypes. Many times, those with illnesses such as schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder, among others, are portrayed as violent. Despite studies proving that those with mental illnesses aren’t as likely to commit violent crimes, media sources continue to push the stereotype. A study done by the American Psychological Association shows that only 7.4 percent of violent crimes are directly caused by serious mental illnesses. However, a study done in 2006 gages that 60 percent of Americans believe that those with schizophrenia are more likely to act out violently. The news additionally pushes this belief, especially when reporting mass shootings. These stereotypes are also pushed onto fictional characters. An article written by Kirsten Fawcett for U.S. News on the topic quotes Don Diefenbach, chair and professor of mass communications, who has done a study showing that TV characters that are labeled with a mental illness are 10 to 20 times more likely to commit a violent crime than those in real life. 

In addition to the violent stereotype, the media tends to push the notion that those with mental illness look different. This is mainly done through a disheveled appearance or general uncleanliness in many shows or movies, making those with mental illnesses visually separate from those without. Creating this image of mental illnesses hurts those with them because they are ostracized and feel as if they need to present themselves differently to not be seen as threatening. There are a huge number of people suffering from mental illnesses who are able to take care of their physical appearance, but because of this stereotype that means they should be normal, right? 

Mentioned before, the media tends to make huge generalizations when it comes to mental illnesses, and oftentimes looking at the extremities of mental disorders. In depicting mental disorders, the media (especially TV) clumps them into the same categories with the same amount of severity, mainly depression and forms of psychosis, which is proven by Diefenbach’s studies. By using such broad labels, there is no variety in symptoms. When only describing the most severe cases of various mental illnesses, people who have the disorder may feel as if they aren’t valid because it isn’t as severe. Mental disorders are not one size fits all, there are so many different ways that they can affect the average person. Generalizing does not do the complexity of mental health justice in the media. 

Most importantly, the media neglects to acknowledge that recovery is possible. Characters in TV shows and movies do not tend to show that people can recover from these disorders, and in the cases where they do it’s temporary. This justifies a common thought that many with mental illness have which is that they cannot get better, and misinforms those that don’t know that mental illnesses aren’t permanent. Clearly, this belief is false as mental health experts say that with the help of therapy, medicine, and support groups, those experiencing mental illnesses can recover and live a healthy life. On the same subject, the media villianizes mental hospitals, depicting it as a place that does more harm than good. By doing this, many build a false image of a mental hospital and may not go there for help. 

Though the media attempts to work on humanizing people with mental disorders, media outlets have a lot of work to do to help reduce the stigmatization of mental illnesses. The stereotypes surrounding those with mental illnesses ostracizes and villianizes them. While these stigmas cannot be erased overnight, encouraging open communication on the topic and relying more on factual evidence, will break the stigma.