TV and Film: The Boring Defense

“People aren’t interested in watching someone with a minor illness go to a self-help group. Just look at ER–they only show the most extreme cases as well,” Robert Berger, Ph.D, the professional consultant for Wonderland, told Psychology Today.

Does showing an accurate portrayal really sacrifice entertainment value? Lichtenstein doesn’t think so. With so many rich, authentic stories of mental illness, having a character stab a pregnant doctor, because that’s the only drama available, “reveals a lazy, uninquisitive mind that doesn’t go below the surface to find where the real story is,” Lichtenstein said. His company produced the highly-acclaimed West 47th Street, which followed four people struggling with serious mental illness at a NYC mental health center for three years. The stories Lichtenstein found were “far more dramatic” than Wonderland’s stereotype-laden series or other films that feature a “limited palette” with violence and antisocial behavior, Lichtenstein said. Using a filmmaking style called cinéma vérité, which excludes interviews and narration, West 47th Street features heartbreak and humor and all the shades of gray in between that accompany real life.

Children and the Media

Adult programs aren’t the only ones that portray mental illness negatively and inaccurately. “Children’s programs have a surprising amount of stigmatizing content,” Olson said. For instance, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast attempts to prove that Belle’s father is crazy and should be locked up, she said.

When Wahl and colleagues examined the content of children’s TV programs (Wahl, Hanrahan, Karl, Lasher & Swaye, 2007), they found that many used slang or disparaging language (e.g., “crazy,” “nuts,” “mad”). Characters with mental illness were typically depicted “as aggressive and threatening” and other characters feared, disrespected or avoided them. His earlier research also showed that children view mental illness as less desirable than other health conditions (Wahl, 2002).

Wahl offered several suggestions for caregivers to help kids go beyond these images:

  • Recognize that others can spread misconceptions, including you.
  • Examine your own biases so you don’t unknowingly hand them to your kids.
  • Gain an accurate understanding of mental illness.
  • Be sensitive in how you talk about and behave toward people with mental illness. For instance, avoid using disparaging language.
  • Cultivate critical thinking skills. Instead of saying, “You shouldn’t say that,” talk to your kids about what they see and hear. Ask them: “What would you say if you had a mental illness? Why do you think people with mental illness are portrayed like that? Do you know anyone with a mental illness who isn’t like that?”

Become a Critical Consumer

It can be tough to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate information yourself. Here’s a list of strategies:

  • Consider the content producer’s motives. “Are they trying to sell you something, or do they have a vested interest in a particular point of view?” Olson said.
  • View the news as something “out of the ordinary,” Olson said. Research has found that a violent crime by a person with mental illness is more likely to get the front page than a crime committed by a person without mental illness, Wahl said. Just as we hear more often about plane crashes than car crashes, we hear more about people with a mental illness being violent, Olson said. When a person with a mental illness is involved, it elicits a kneejerk reaction: The person’s disorder automatically becomes the lead of the story, Lichtenstein said. “Few stories address other aspects of mental illness, or show everyday people who happen to be dealing with a mental illness,” Olson said.

    It isn’t that newspaper stories are inaccurate; a person with a mental illness might have committed a crime, Wahl said. But people need to avoid making generalizations and understand that the news that’s presented to us is selected. “Everybody’s lives aren’t dominated by fires or crime,” he added.

  • Scrutinize studies. If you’re hearing about a new, “breakthrough” study, Olson suggested paying attention to: “who was studied, how many people, for how long and what results were actually measured.” For context, also consider other studies’ findings. The media “very often report a single finding that hasn’t been validated by other studies,” Wahl said.
  • Visit reputable websites, such as: Psych Central, NAMI, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Mental Health America, or organizations for specific types of mental illnesses like the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.
  • Seek a variety of sources. If you need information on the economy, it’s doubtful that you’d turn to just one source, Lichtenstein said.
  • Check out first-person accounts. Information from individuals with mental illness and their families tends to be more authentic in terms of experience, though it doesn’t mean it’s more fair, accurate or trustworthy, Lichtenstein said.

Finally, remember that the media aren’t the only source of stereotypes and stigma. Prejudice can come even from well-intentioned individuals, people with mental illness, their families or mental health professionals, Wahl said. “We don’t want people to focus only on the media as scapegoats. Yes, we need to recognize that they’re a leading purveyor since they reach so many households, but we have to look at ourselves, as well.”

Resources and Further Reading

Butler, J.R., & Hyler, S.E. (2005). Hollywood portrayals of child and adolescent mental health treatment: Implications for clinical practice. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 14, 509-522.

Elbogen, E.B., & Johnson, S.C. (2009). The intricate link between violence and mental disorder: Results from the national epidemiological survey on alcohol and related conditions. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66, 152-161.

Schnieder, I. (1987). The theory and practice of movie psychiatry. American Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 996-1002.

Wahl, O.F. (2002). Children’s views of mental illness: A review of the literature. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 6, 134–158.

Wahl, O.F., (2004). Stop the presses. Journalistic treatment of mental illness. In L.D. Friedman (Ed.) Cultural Sutures. Medicine and Media (pp. 55-69). Durkheim, NC: Duke University Press.

Wahl, O.F., Hanrahan, E., Karl, K., Lasher, E., & Swaye, J. (2007). The depiction of mental illnesses in children’s television programs. Journal of Community Psychology, 35, 121-133.

Psych Central’s list of Anti-Stigma Sources

Fact sheets, articles and research from SAMHSA

National Stigma Clearinghouse