Media’s Damaging Depictions of Mental Illness
A man who suffers from schizophrenia goes on a shooting spree in Times Square and later stabs a pregnant physician in the stomach. These are the opening scenes from Wonderland, a drama set in the psychiatric and emergency room units of a New York City hospital. Premiering in 2000, Wonderland was promptly canceled because of dwindling ratings and heavy criticism from mental health groups (though it was brought back in January 2009).
The series portrayed a bleak life for people with mental illness and groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) criticized its theme of hopelessness.
But images of individuals with mental illness aren’t always so in your face. Subtle stereotypes pervade the news regularly. Just the other day, a local news program in Central Florida reported on a woman setting her son’s dog on fire. The reporter ended the segment by stating that the woman had been depressed recently. Whether it’s a graphic depiction or an insinuating remark, the media often paint a grim and inaccurate picture.
And these pictures can have a big influence on the public. Research has shown that many people get their information about mental illness from the mass media (Wahl, 2004). What they do see can color their perspective, leading them to fear, avoid and discriminate against individuals with mental illness.
These myths don’t just damage public perceptions; they also affect people with mental illness. In fact, the fear of stigma can prevent individuals from seeking treatment. One study even found that workers would rather say they committed a petty crime and spent time in jail than disclose that they stayed at a psychiatric hospital.
Whether it’s a film, news program, newspaper or TV show, the media perpetuates many myths about mental illness. Below is just a sampling of common misconceptions:
People with mental illness are violent. “Studies have found that dangerousness/crime is the most common theme of stories on mental illness,” said Cheryl K. Olson, Sc.D., co-director of the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry. But “research suggests that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.” Also, recent research found that mental illness alone doesn’t predict violent behavior (Elbogen & Johnson, 2009). Other variables—including substance abuse, history of violence, demographic variables (e.g., sex, age) and the presence of stressors (e.g., unemployment)—also play a role.
They’re unpredictable. A focus group composed of individuals who affect the lives of people with mental illness, such as insurance executives, was asked what they thought about people with mental illness. Nearly half cited unpredictability as a big concern. They feared that individuals might “go berserk” and attack someone.