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.
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?