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Changing Media Depictions of Mental Illness

Changing Media Depictions of Mental IllnessThe perceptions of mental illnesses have come a long way from their characterization as untreatable maladies, thus forcing the suffering individual to be locked away in an asylum. No longer are victims of these disorders viewed as taboo creatures; rather, our society has slowly opened up the discussion and admittance of such problems, coming as far as creating distinct professions to classify and treat these illnesses. Furthermore, many people, if treated, find their lives to be as normal as any other “normal” person.

Despite this developing contemporary stance, past prejudice is hard to squelch. Due to a lack of knowledge and past misconceptions, we are forced to resort to other sources to fill this informational void. In an age where information is provided and monopolized by the media, this void often takes the form of actors’ portrayals on television and in movies. However, this comes as a double-edged sword, with some depictions spreading awareness and realism, and others reinforcing negative cognitive appraisals of mental health stereotypes.

Relevance of the Subject Matter

Cable television movies and the ever-so-prevalent autism Time magazine article aside, many individuals feel unaffected by mental illnesses (Penn & Martin, 1998). Despite this commonly held notion, statistics imply that over a quarter of the American population — more than 58 million people — has a diagnosable mental illness (Kessler, Chiu, Demler, & Walters, 2005). Additionally, nearly half of people with a diagnosable mental illness are classified as having one or more comorbid mental illnesses (Kessler et. al, 2005). Although many would like to think that all their friends, family members, or they themselves, are perfectly “normal,” at least one, if not many more, have a mental illness.

Formation of Mental Illness Stigma via the Media

Since individuals with mental illness are a group growing in number by the year, it is important to consider how our society characterizes this group. As with other ethnic and cultural groups the American populace finds to be strange and different, Americans tend to stigmatize persons with mental illness due to their lack of knowledge of the subject matter (Penn & Martin, 1998).

Yet, how is this stigma formed and reinforced? Research by Hocking (2003) stipulates that many of the negative connotations the public forms against persons with mental illness are molded from the public’s exposure to the illness. Furthermore, Wahl (1997) hypothesizes that the cementing of these stigmas is formed by exposures that are commonplace within our society, specifically through media sources.

Through these constant exposures to movies, television, and other social media sources, we are conditioned to believe that the depictions of mental illness in the media are the truth. However, these depictions seem to contain two main fallacies that can taint reputability and reinforce negative stigma: (1) inaccurate representations of the mental illness and (2) frequent depiction of mainly negative symptomology of the mental illness (Wahl, 1997).

In a society where grandeur is favored, the media tends to overdramatize the portrayal of mental illness. This is especially alarming due to the excessive association of mental illness with comedic and violent characterization. Wahl (1992) found that media depictions of mental illness tended to be inaccurate, often to the point of being comical and unfavorable. Furthermore, most characters on television shows who are identified as having mental illnesses are often portrayed as having poor morals, and being dangerous. They are frequently seen resorting to drug usage, eliciting seedy behavior, and more often than not, as criminals (Coverdale, Nairn, & Claasen, 2002).

Media Effort To Increase Mental Health Literacy

In reality, most mentally ill people tend to show minimal amounts of violent tendencies (Grohol, 1998). In order to combat this ill-fitting stereotype, some media sources have attempted to document an accurate and realistic depiction of mental illness. Research by Stresing and Bass (2010) found that media exposure to mental illness has desensitized the public to mental illness, allowing some positive acceptance. This exposure has proven beneficial to the public in three ways: (1) decreasing the taboo of the subject matter, (2) showing treatment options, and (3) depicting characters overcoming the disorder.

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Beneficial Media Portrayals of Mental Health Awareness

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is relatively rare, affecting just 2.5 percent of the population (Antony, Downie, & Swinson, 1998). Yet it is often referenced in the media, with characters typically portrayed as neurotic and comedic. However, a recent episode of the television series Glee illustrated a very different view of a character whose OCD was often utilized solely for humor or entertainment.

In the episode “Born this Way,” character Emma Pillsbury’s OCD is brought to the limelight when each character is asked to reveal a trait that he or she often perceives as a flaw. At first Emma hides that her OCD affects her deeply, but over the course of the episode, the once laugh-worthy quirks are replaced by portrayals of how her need for cleanliness affects many of her daily functions. The show also advocates both medication and counseling.


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Changing Media Depictions of Mental Illness

Ryan P. Holliday

Ryan Holliday is currently working on his master's degree in general/experimental psychology and plans to apply for his PhD in clinical psychology in the near future. His interests are stress, anxiety disorders, and fighting mental health stigma. Feel free to contact him via [email protected]

APA Reference
Holliday, R. (2018). Changing Media Depictions of Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.