When you think of the portrayal in the media of someone struggling with their Mental Health or having a Mental Illness what image do you think of? Do you think of someone who is hearing voices while potting revenge? Or someone who is unkept and perhaps about to attack someone? - These are just some of the ways more often than not that we see the media conjure up narratives and images of people who might be having a mental illness. This negative portrayal tends to not just add to the stigma but also shapes the ways we perceive or think about Mental Illness and Mental Health.
We see a lot about Mental Health and Mental Illnesses in the mainstream media today. The media, be it movies, television shows, web series, the news and other forms of entertainment have tremendous power over our minds and in the way we perceive the world around us. That being said, despite this responsibility, we don’t see the media even today providing us with accurate portrays around Mental Health and Mental Illness and this negatively influences the public perception while also adding to or perpetuating stigma. Recent research has shown that 70% of the general population tends to get their information about Mental Health from moves and television while 58% resort to the news for their source of information. While for decades we have seen these portrayals of Mental Health and Mental Illness to be misrepresented and stigmatised, there have also been several calls in recent times for more humane, accurate and sensitive portrays to be shown. This piece will look at some of the ways in which Mental Health and Mental Illness is negatively portrayed while also providing suggestions on how the media can do better in this regard.
The media sadly contributes to the already prevailing stigma around Mental Health and Mental Illness through their often overdramatised, insensitive and inaccurate conjectures they use to portray individuals with psychiatric disorders as well as providing incorrect information about mental illness. There are several ways in which this happens. For instance, when we have any heinous crime or random act of violence, people are inclined to label perpetrators as ‘crazy’ or ‘mentally ill’, and while it is possible that the criminal might have a mental illness, assigning them the label as ‘crazy’ or ‘psycho’ can do great harm to those living with mental health conditions. Also, what the media often doesn’t tell us in drawing this relationship between criminality and Mental illness is that those with a Mental illness are far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of crime. What needs to be made clear is that that only a small percentage of those with a Mental Illness commit severe crimes.
The media also tends to overgeneralise their portrayals of Mental Illnesses which goes against the idea that these disorders in reality don’t have a ‘one-size fits all’ approach - for instance, not everyone with schizophrenia will hear voices or hallucinate, not everyone with an eating disorder will be skinny and not every individual with depression will have suicidal feelings. It is important to know that not everyone with the same diagnosis will have the same symptoms or display extreme symptoms as often showed in the media. The media also tends to often trivialise some mental illnesses as it can portray some conditions as less severe than they are in reality.
When it comes to portrayals around treatment and recovery, we don’t often see characters in films and shows really recover and when they do, we are shown how it is only temporary or that they are ‘masking’/ ‘faking’ their recovery. This hampers the hope for recovery for many and it can push them away from therapy, medication or support as they don’t believe that things can get better. Even when it comes to depictions of institutionalisation, in the media, the portrayals we see are archaic and of inhuman conditions being used to ‘cure’ individuals including torture, ice baths, chaining, restraining and isolation - and this is far from the reality of how mental health institutions and hospitals work today. Another element around recovery that we see being damaging is that these individuals as shown in the media are unpredictable, violent or incapable of looking after themselves and hence cannot hold a stable job or relationship, which is again a very damaging narrative. The problem with showing recovery in this way or the suggestions the media often alludes to where individuals on-screen are told to ‘get over it’ or ‘snap out of it’ can have a trickle down effect on the audiences who might imitate what they see on screen.
The media also has several sexist portrayals of the Mental Health space and Mental illness at times in that that we often see men being those who have more issues like psychoses, addiction and personality disorders while women are shown to be more prone to anxiety and depression. Additionally, when we see a Mental Health expert, it is more often than not played by a female and in some very disastrous portrayals, there are suggestions of love-affairs brewing between the client and their Mental Health professional which in reality is a breach of the code of ethics of Mental Health professionals and not a likelihood of happening. Men are rarely shown as Mental Health professionals and this suggests that this is a more female-oriented profession, which is not the case.
Lastly, we will look at how the media, particularly the news reports stories around suicide and it is important that ethical guidelines are followed and these stories are not sensationalised as it can lead to increased rates of suicide in vulnerable populations (You can read more on these guidelines on this post). When it comes to reporting suicide, the media need to avoid graphic and triggering descriptions, generalisations based on little to no evidence and dramatic phrases such as ‘suicide epidemic’, ‘suicide tsunami’ or ‘suicide capital of the world’. The reporting should pay special attention to not oversimplifying suicide. Very often it is a complex decision owing to a range of underlying factors. When it comes to reporters themselves, they need to watch their tone - their “excitement” to break these stories should be moderated keeping in mind the somber nature of the event. Stories should be done with caution, be grounded in facts, signpost people and come from a place of empathy rather than trying to sensationalise or romanticise what has happened.
Media portrayals of those with mental illness often skew toward either stigmatization or trivialization and it thus makes them responsible for disseminating negative stereotypes and inaccurate descriptions of those with mental illness. The biggest challenge posed by the false and negative narratives is that it paints a false picture about what Mental Health and Mental Illness really entails and this leads to further fuelling stereotypes or confirming negative beliefs. The stigma that this adds to can be problematic as it can dissuade people from seeking the help they need, hamper recovery as people struggling might lose hope and confidence in the very idea of recovery, lead to discrimination against those who are struggling, cause isolation because of fear, have a negative impact on relationships and hurt an individual’s self-esteem and sense of self.
Healthy and good media depicts Mental Health and Mental illness in a responsible, balanced, factual and sensitive manner as this can help the greater community develop a better understanding on the subject. There are few ways in which this can be done. This includes:
Focussing on a research-based approach so as to avoid promoting stereotypes or leading to stigmatization and trivialization. Expert opinions from Mental Health professionals can also be taken into account. We know that the media has tremendous power and if they work with healthcare professionals, they can help reduce the stigma attached the Mental lllnesses. It is also crucial to provide accurate and correct information about Mental Health conditions which comes from reliable sources.
Having training programs for journalists and those involved in Mental Health so as to build knowledge and lead to better understanding. When it comes to news, they can include details of Mental Illness only when it is really relevant to the story,
Ensuring that mental-health terminology is used with precision, fairness, and expertise and the language around Mental Health is not stigmatising. Using person-first language, not using mental health conditions as adjectives and avoiding terms like ‘psycho’, ‘lunatic’, ‘schizo’, ‘happy pills’, ‘druggie’, ‘cutter’ and ‘crazy’ can go a long way as well. The language we use can play a big role in not trivialising the suffering of people and can help people to seek help or continue treatment - focusing on semantics is thus more important than we often think.
Emphasising that Mental Illnesses are real, common and treatable can help offer hope to people and encourage those struggling to seek help. In this regard, highlighting the work being done by individuals in the community, stories of those who have recovered and focussing on messaging around the importance of early recognition and treatment of mental illness can play a big role. Positive messaging can help counter the stigma and promote help-seeking behaviours as well.
The negative portrayals in the media do no good to anyone as they not only demean those struggling, but also reinforce incorrect beliefs. Given the ever increasing power, reach and consumption of media, it is imperative that it becomes a tool to sensitise and educate the masses, create safe spaces for conversations about Mental Health, change the negative attitudes and challenge the stigma against Mental Illnesses.
Mass media needs to be a tool for educating the masses, rather than misleading and biasing them!
Written by: Vedica Podar
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