Mental Illness in the Media–An Incomplete Picture

The mass media has a horrible track record when it comes to factually portraying mental illnesses. Television, movies, and newspapers all characterize suffers of mental health issues as violent, slovenly, and unpredictable. Unfortunately, many misconceptions about mental conditions are born here, because this is where many people get their information about mental conditions.

newspaper

Credit to flickr.com user Magnus Karlsson. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Up to 73% of sufferers of mental illnesses in television shows are portrayed as violent, compared to roughly 40% of “normal” characters. And, to make matters worse, only 24% of female characters without mental health issues are violent, which makes the 71% of violent female characters with disorders even more shocking.

Films are just as bad. The most typical example is Psycho, where mild-mannered Norman Bates is dominated by his “mother-half,” a homicidal split in his personality run by his deceased mother. Even if the director has the best intentions and portrays bipolar disorder accurately, like in Silver Linings Playbook, having the two main characters’ issues washed away because they end up together is highly inaccurate and almost insulting.

Print media gets it wrong as well. In 2011, 14% of articles referred to suffers of mental illness as a “danger to others.” Tabloid newspapers especially focus on violence, using graphic descriptions and terms like “crazed” in the headlines to attract attention. Most newspapers engage in armchair diagnoses, which means they speculate on the mental state of article subjects without evidence to back up their claims.

But the fact is, people with mental illnesses just aren’t more bloodthirsty than the general population. A new study published in the scientific journal JAMA found that only 8% of those with schizophrenia and no substance abuse were violent, compared to 5% of the general public, a statistically insignificant number. Research demonstrates time and time again that the media is dead wrong in its estimation of violence among the mentally ill.

So how can you sift through the information presented and gain a critical eye, and instill that in your children as well? First, you can ask why you’re being told something. What bias do reporters lean toward, and, if applicable, what are they trying to sell you?

Second, recognize that crimes are more reported on than everyday, slice-of-life stories. Violence sells, and mental illnesses, when involved, become the focus of the story. Very few stories about recovery are published on a daily basis, because therapy is boring to read about.

Third, seek other sources, especially first-hand accounts. There are several reputable websites available, like nami.org, the official site of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and nimh.nih.gov, the site for the National Institute of Mental Health.

What about your kids? Train them by following the first three steps, with the addition of asking them why they think people with mental illnesses are portrayed the way they are.

With these steps, you can learn to filter the mass media you consume, and help combat the stigma that sufferers of mental illness face everyday.

What sorts of portrayals of mental illness have you seen in the media? 

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About Cassandra Stout

Freelance writer Cassandra Stout blogs at the award-winning Bipolar Parent, a comprehensive resource for parents with mental illnesses. Cassandra holds degrees from the University of Arizona in Creative Writing and Journalism. She has been a judge for the Pacific Northwest Writers' Association literary contest for nine years, where her memoir, Committed, recently placed as a finalist. She balances her literary work with raising her children, feeding her cat, and managing her bipolar disorder.
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4 Responses to Mental Illness in the Media–An Incomplete Picture

  1. dyane says:

    I still see a fair amount of articles from 2017 about ECT that show photos of antiquated ECT equipment – that really pisses me off! The machines look freaky and these misleading photos will scare off some people from exploring that option. 😦

    Great writing as always, Cass! And, naturally, I retweeted it! 😉

    • Thanks for the retweet, Dyane! You’re the bee’s knees! And I hadn’t noticed that, but I agree that that’s worth being pissed off about! I’m so sorry that the media continues to perpetuate inaccuracies that might actually harm people!

  2. Bipolar Mom says:

    This is shown in the news in addition to movies. They note mental illness in individuals of violent crimes at an alarming rate; however, if it was someone of another background the same thing would be considered terrorism. I have found few accurate portrayals of mental illness in TV and film that I cannot even come up with an example at this very moment. Interesting read.

    • It really is hard to come up with an example, isn’t it? And you’re absolutely right that the news is just as bad as cinema. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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