What the Media Gets Wrong About People With Mental Illness
Here in Canada, we celebrate an annual mental health awareness day called Bell Let’s Talk. Several years ago, I belonged to a non-profit organization who decided to open the doors as a drop-in for people with mental illness. I have a lot of experience with mental illness in people close to me, so I volunteered to be a listening ear and support to visitors for a few hours.
I was dismayed, however, when the female coordinator of the event told the volunteers to sit near the door “in case you need to escape.” Apparently, she had a scary encounter in an office with a person who had mental health issues. I, on the other hand, have spent over a decade visiting mental health wards and dealing with this condition in people close to me. I have never been threatened or harmed in any way, even in the more potentially dangerous wards. It has been my experience that people with serious mental issues tend to withdraw and isolate themselves rather than lash out.
The media is the public’s main source of information about disorders such as depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia. At times, the media can do a good job of telling the stories of people with mental illness. Now and then, celebrities are honest open about how their condition affects their lives. As a mental health advocate and writer, I have observed that despite efforts to educate the public about mental illness, misconceptions and stigma are still strong in society and in the media. In the book, Madness, Public Images of Mental Illness, award-winning author Otto E. Whal, Ph.D. took an in-depth look at this topic and found that myths about mental illness are both pervasive and destructive.
Common Myths About Mental Illness Depicted in the Media
Mentally ill people are weak
A common belief is that people with mental issues are weak and should “snap out of it.” They are supposed to “get over” their condition. Mental illness is a complex condition that affects each individual differently. People cannot control many of their symptoms without some type of medical treatment or therapy. The media tends to trivialize the severity of mental disorders and does not show the negative impact symptoms can have on people’s lives.
People with mental illness are aggressive and dangerous
According to the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital, most stories in the media reflect the idea that mentally ill people are dangerous. If the person being featured has not been diagnosed with a mental condition, the media may imply that the person was mentally ill by reporting: “The family said that she suffered from chronic depression” or “the man had a history of angry outbursts.” In reality, approximately four percent of violence in the USA can be attributed to mental health issues.
Mental illness alone does not determine whether someone is violent. Professor Sophie Walsh of the Department of Criminology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel studied prisoners to analyze whether the presence of psychiatric disorders is connected to future incarceration. The study concluded that a psychiatric diagnosis is not a factor that predicts that an individual will commit crimes and be incarcerated. Many other factors such as sex, age, substance abuse, past criminal behavior and certain stressors could trigger criminal behavior. Statistics have shown over the years that only a small percentage of mentally ill people commit violent crimes. Many are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.
Places such as mental health wards and institutions are often depicted in the media as scary places with rampant violence and all kinds of abuse. Unfortunately, such places do exist and the media seems to relish in the gory details when they cover these types of stories.
Patients are often depicted as being forced to be admitted against their will. Many people, however, do voluntarily commit themselves to find a diagnosis and treat their symptoms. Laws regarding involuntary commitment vary but most generally focus on the rights of the patient. Committing someone to an institution is actually difficult unless the person is a danger to themselves and others.
Mentally ill people are unpredictable
Some people fear that those with mental issues will suddenly go berserk and physically harm someone. Most of the mentally ill, however, are ordinary people who go to school with us and work beside us. They may have setbacks now and then but many are successfully managing their symptoms overall with medication, various types of therapy, and support from others.
People with mental illness do not get better
Their conditions are often depicted as hopeless and incapable of changing. In reality, these issues are treatable and can improve with proper treatment and support. Mental health research is increasing our knowledge of genetics, brain activity, and other factors contributing to this condition, and is developing new treatment methods. I see press releases every day about exciting advances in treatment and care but these stories are often not covered by the media.
People can be categorized and labeled
When the volunteer coordinator mentioned that we should sit near the door as an escape route when mentally ill people entered the room, she demonstrated a common fear that people with mental illness are aggressive. The medial tends to lump all mental disorders together instead of acknowledging that these are complex conditions that affect each individual differently. When a crime occurs, the media will analyze what occurred and try to identify a cause such as substance abuse or mental illness. Sometimes the media will jump to conclusions or imply that a mental health condition is involved, such as saying that third parties reported the subject of a story was “depressed.”
Sometimes, people with mental illness are depicted as being wild-eyed and with weird clothes and messy hair. Most of them, however, have an ordinary appearance that is not different than “normal” individuals. When success stories about the accomplishments of mentally ill people are reported, the media tends to sensationalize and simplify the story down to fixing a “chemical imbalance” or being a wonder pill. Many people think that mental illness treatment can be treated with wonder drugs. In reality, psychiatrists must analyze symptoms over time to determine a diagnosis and will try several approaches before finding the most effective treatments.
The Damage Caused by Negative Reporting on Mental Illness
Creates fear and apprehension of mentally ill people
When the media blames violence on mental illness, the public is fearful of these individuals.
The actions of a few put labels on people with psychiatric disorders
The volunteer coordinator at the event I attended was judging all people with mental disorders as potentially violent based on one incident. In the same way, the media judges this group based on the actions of a few. Mental disorders affect individuals differently and many do not experience extreme symptoms.
Stigma can keep people from seeking help for their condition
Mental illness is sometimes portrayed as not only being scary but as something shameful or a sign of moral weakness. People with symptoms are reluctant to identify themselves as having a disorder by seeking professional help. Their self-esteem is eroded by symptoms that are out of their control.
Can cause discrimination
Stigma brands this group as different, strange, and outsiders. They have difficulty finding employment or fitting into social groups.
How The Media can Improve their Stories about Mental Illness
There are several things the media can do to improve their coverage
- Do not mention mental illness if it is not relevant to the story
- Learn all they can about the mental disorders they are covering and include input from psychiatrists and other valid resources during production
- Meet real people with the conditions they want to portray and look for success stories
- Analyze whether mentioning their mental state is newsworthy rather than sensational and emotionally arousing
- Do not misrepresent mental health issues to make a story more interesting to readers
- Use medical terminology appropriately and accurately
- Create mental health awareness courses when training future journalists
There are several things that we can do as a society to fight the stigma of mental illness such as:
- Educate ourselves about mental disorders
- Support and become involved in organizations who are promoting public awareness about mental disorders
- Monitor news coverage and provide either positive or negative feedback, as needed
- Applaud news stories that are accurate and educational
- Use social media to promote understanding and positive attitudes about mental illness and discourage stigma and stereotypes
The media has made some strides in providing compassionate, accurate information about mental disorders. More needs to be done, however, to stop using them to write sensational, inaccurate stories that create stigma, shame, and perpetuate myths about mental illness.
New Study: Mental Illness Not Predictive of Crime or Incarceration, By Rick Nauert PhD
How the Stigma of Mental Health Is Spread by Mass Media, verywellmind.com, Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Media’s Damaging Depictions of Mental Illness, PsychCentral, Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Ways Mental Illness Is Commonly Misrepresented in the Media, PsychCentral, Sandy
How Mental illness is Misrepresented in the Media, U.S. News and World Report, Kirstin Fawcett