8 Minutes

Edited & medically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
Fact checked

What comes to your mind when you think of how the media portrays mental health issues? Do you imagine a dishevelled person running rampant in a town or a frightened woman hearing voices as she plots revenge against her unfaithful husband? While it’s pretty common for movies to paint the character of a mental health patient as the ‘bad guy, in reality, they are much more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator. Calling them violent or crazy only promotes a dangerous stereotype and complicates the relationship between mental illness and criminality.

The media has always taught us about people we do not interact with routinely. This gives us constant social cues about the nature of different groups of people, including which ones to praise or scorn, and people with mental health illnesses almost always come in the latter group. Despite the rapid increase in awareness about mental health, the media portrayals of such individuals still skew towards trivialisation and stigmatisation along with various other issues. As a result, all forms of media, including film, television, newspapers, social media, and magazines, have been heavily criticised for disseminating inaccurate descriptions and negative stereotypes of those with mental issues.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the media portrayal of mental illness has been biased and heavily stereotyped. Experts analysing these misinterpretations have concluded that a character battling a mental illness is ten times more likely to commit a violent crime than other characters. Similarly, they are up to twenty times more likely to commit a violent crime than someone with a mental issue would in real life.

Mentioned below are some additional misinterpretations of mental health in the media:

People with mental illness are violent.

Mental illness is often the focus of the news as a primary cause of violence. The truth, however, is that such people are at a higher risk of being victims of violent crimes than committing them. Yet, most films and TV series portray people with mental health issues as unpredictably violent.

People with mental illness look different.

In every movie or drama, a character with a mental illness has a similar clichéd appearance with features like messy hair or crazy eyes. In reality, most people with mental health illnesses look very much like ordinary people. They are well-kept and tidy and free from the stereotypes of the media.

All mental health disorders are the same and extreme.

It is not uncommon to notice how media often generalises mental health illness, clumping all disorders in the same category. It also makes people falsely believe that all mental issues are equally extreme and force victims to practice harmful, violent, or ‘crazy’ behaviours. The reality is quite the opposite of these factors, as the majority of such people in real life do not experience extreme symptoms so commonly. A person with schizophrenia, for example, can live a normal life without indulging in violent crimes or experiencing psychotic episodes for months or even years with the help of medication and therapy.

People with mental illness never recover.

Characters with mental health disorders in TV shows and films rarely recover. The relief is only temporary, even if they make it out of the illness. Such a depiction makes the general public believe there is no hope for such people. In reality, medication, therapy, and support from loved ones can boost the chances of recovering from a mental illness. A lot of people achieve complete recovery in a relatively shorter time and continue to live happy, productive, and healthy lives. 

Mental hospitals are evil.

While many mental hospitals used harsh physical treatments, such as ice baths and prolonged isolation, to cure mental illness, this mostly happened in the 18th century. Today’s modern mental health facilities are different from the dim, damp institutions controlled by evil doctors, as portrayed in countless films, books, and TV dramas. People of today choose to join these modern rehabilitation centres to seek help and support for recovery.

Mental issues are due to a weakness in character.

Due to the constant portrayal of this extremely wrong notion, many people are afraid of getting the help they need, primarily because they feel ashamed. However, it must be remembered that mental health is not something one chooses to suffer from because they are weak. Many factors govern the risk of acquiring it, such as biology, history of trauma or abuse, and family history.

All people with mental health issues know about their diagnosis.

It is also not uncommon for the media to discount that people with mental disorders do not need to disclose their condition to people around them. Most portrayals of such people by the press include situations where everyone automatically knows about them. The reality is quite different as in real life, many people with underlying mental issues cannot get a diagnosis, and their symptoms often go undiagnosed unless they share them with people around them.

So far, research analysing the portrayal of mental health issues by the media is limited. So to make any positive amendments in this area, we first need a better understanding of how the media disseminates these messages before we can think of rectifying them. Nevertheless, experts have suggested improving the depiction of people battling mental health illnesses in the media.

Since the media has the power to reinforce a stigma, media professionals, such as filmmakers and journalists, can help reduce this stigma by:

  • Reporting accurately and responsibly
  • Learning more about mental health
  • Striving to portray the truth
  • Considering the consequences of circulating false information
  • Connecting with real people living with mental illnesses who wish to portray their struggles
  • Portraying mental health problems in a positive light
  • Fact-checking for accuracy
  • Approaching mental health with understanding and empathy
  • Breaking previously established stereotypes, such as showing characters who recover from a mental issue
  • Careful choice of language

In addition to media professionals, everyone else can play their part in reducing the stigma attached to mental health by:

  • Praising the media and providing positive feedback when they report accurate news
  • Protesting with a goal to increase public awareness regarding mental health
  • Organising a mental health literacy campaign to educate the community about mental health
  • Educating themselves and others on the common mental health issues and the associated struggles
  • Encouraging open communication and discussions about mental health
  • Hosting community events to allow people with and without mental illness to interact
  • Being mindful of the language they use while discussing mental health
  • Writing to media sources when they stigmatise mental illness
  • Discouraging shame and encouraging self-love, hope, and empowerment
  • Showing compassion towards those with mental illness
  • Spreading positive attitudes with the help of social media

If you encounter an inappropriate or inaccurate media portrayal regarding mental health, do not be afraid to contact the media sources and confront them. Some issues that you can look out for include:

  • Mocking mental health issues
  • Sensationalist reporting
  • Misuse of medical terminologies
  • Inaccuracy
  • Glamorising suicide
  • Use of demeaning language

As a generation that uses social media so copiously, perhaps the best thing we can do is stop using words like “deranged” and “crazy” in a derogatory fashion. We must also remember that making a psychiatric diagnosis outside of a clinical setting is wrong. Only a specialist is qualified enough to make a diagnosis, and when we try to do the same with no clinical evidence, we might hurt people who live with mental illness every day.

Stigma in a workplace can affect not only the patients but the healthcare professionals as well. Luckily, there are multiple ways in which these healthcare professionals can reduce the negative view of mental illness in the masses:

  • Promote mental health and raise awareness about it in the workplace
  • Preach accurate information
  • Help patients overcome the stigma around their mental illness through self-education
  • Provide accurate education resources to clients and employees through literature, videos, conferences, workshops, and community events
  • Arrange contact-based educational sessions to connect the audience to individuals with mental illness
  • Practice optimism
  • Set positive examples
  • Reach out to social media and share your knowledge about mental health illness
  • Attend anti-stigma training to learn how to identify and address unconscious bias
  • Engage in public outreach by organising screenings
  • Contact media sources if you notice inaccurate or insensitive information being communicated to the public

We already live in a world entrenched in prejudice against mental illness, and this unjust discrimination severely impacts such people’s quality of life in different ways. Adding to this prejudice through inaccurate and thoughtless representations in the media is unkind and potentially dangerous.

There are so many interesting ways to tell a compelling story. Using an inaccurate portrayal of mental illness as an explanation for violence or as a horror element must never be one of them. Regulating the misrepresentations of mental illness on all media platforms is integral, now more than ever, to eliminating the stigma associated with it. No matter the profits it generates, the cost is too high to continue.



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