Saturday, October 26, 2013

Mental Illness In The Media

Much of our opinions are shaped by what we hear on the radio, what we watch on television and in the movies, and what we read in the newspaper and in magazines. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation conducted a survey in which the majority of respondents said that the mass media was their main source of information about mental illness. Unfortunately, the picture of mental illness that the mass media paints is very rarely an accurate one. This leads individuals to fear individuals living with a mental illness and discriminate against them.

Society possesses false perceptions towards individuals living with a mental illness. In many case, society perceives these individuals as dangerous, unpredictable, and as lacking a positive role in society among many other misconceptions. The media’s negative portrayal of mental illness perpetuates the already negative images of mental illness in society.  

Often times, I will read a story where the media points out that an individual has a mental illness when it has nothing to do with the story. They will casually throw it into an article in between entirely unrelated information. Recently, my father emailed me a story that did just that. The story was about an NBA player who had been suspended. Here is how they stated that he had Bipolar Disorder:

“West has Bipolar Disorder. He was suspended for the first 10 games of the 2010-11 season after pleading guilty to weapons charges in Maryland. Authorities say he was carrying three loaded guns and a knife when he was stopped for speeding on a three-wheel motorcycle in 2009.”

I have yet to figure out the relevance to the story that mentioning that he has Bipolar Disorder holds!

What are some of the common myths about mental illness that the media perpetuates?

People with mental illness are violent- Many studies have found this is the most common theme in the media about individuals with a mental illness. In reality, research has shown that mentally ill individuals are actually more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crimes.

People with mental illness are unpredictable- In reality, the majority of individuals with a mental illness are just ordinary individuals who go to work and school every day; who live normal lives just like everyone else.You may share an office with someone with Bipolar Disorder or be in a class with someone with major depressive illness and would never know they have a mental illness unless they told you. 

Individuals with a mental illness don’t get better- Anyone who has read my story or has known me over the years would know that this, in fact, is entirely false!

Teens with a mental illness are just going through a phase- A doctor tried to tell my parents this when I was 15. I am 28 now and my diagnosis has gone nowhere. My symptoms have improved greatly as a result of treatment and not just waiting them out. Claiming a mental illness to actually be a phase has to potential to be harmful to that individual because a better prognosis often times results from earlier diagnosis and treatment.

All mental health professionals are the same- Mental health professionals are made out to be individuals that should be either feared or laughed at; depending on the portrayal. Some mental health professionals are amazing, some are awful, and some are somewhere in the middle. I've seen them all in my time. It is important as a consumer of mental health services to know that they are not what the media makes them out to be. Continue to search for a good one if you haven't found one yet; don't give up.

Children’s shows and movies are certainly not exempt from this negative portrayal either. Take Beauty and the Beast for example. Gaston makes the attempt to prove that Belle’s father is crazy and that he should be locked up because of it. Many children’s shows have been found to use damaging words such as “mad”, “crazy” and “nuts”. Many have also depicted characters with mental illness as being aggressive and threatening, leading the other characters to fear them, avoid them, or disrespect them.

The negative depiction of mental illness by the media not only contributes to the stigma of mental illness in society but it also prevents individuals from seeking out the proper treatment for their mental illness.  

“There are people out there who could benefit from therapy but don’t go because they think it’s just for ‘crazy’ people or think all therapists are nuts — because that’s what they see in the media." Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a psychologist, writer and professor in Pasadena, California.

The media’s negative portrayal of mental illness can also lead individuals living with a mental illness to believe these negative messages and personally hold true the message true about themselves. 

Stigma Prevents Recovery!!!!

Let us not forget the TV therapists like Dr. Phil who have created an expectation among people that there are quick and easy fixes to complex problems. This just isn't reality!

Mental illness in the media is a topic that I have always found myself frustrated with but have never really known what to do about it. This is such a widespread issue and I've never really knew where to start in regards to tackling it. Please remember that educating about mental illness is extremely important for stigma! It is also very important to educate about how falsely media portrays mental illness. It is important to debunk those myths when they come up in conversation or if you are watching a show or a movie with someone in which mental illness is portrayed inaccurately. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to mental illness; it creates stigma and discrimination!

The media has the potential to be a great outlet for positively changing the public view of mental illness. NAMI has an initiative titled "You Are Not Alone In This Fight".  They have put out a couple PSA's showing that Mental Illness does not discriminate and even some of our past presidents have been affected by mental illness. I have posted them in the past but will repost them shortly. This is a great way to use media for the positive when it comes to mental health stigma. Bring Change 2 Mind is another great organization that uses media positively. It absolutely can be done! Unfortunately, the negative portrayal of mental illness that is seen in the media outweighs the positive portrayal.

“The habits that took years to build, do not take a day to change”- Susan Powter

This quote is extremely relevant in regards to stigma as well!
Don’t give up, keep fighting it. It won't disappear overnight but don't let that stop your fight!

Thank you for reading! Until next time...
Sara Breidenstein
Kissing Stigma Goodbye 

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