Does the Media Unfairly Portray Mentally Ill People as Violent?

Nearly 40 percent of news stories about mental illness report a mentally ill person committing violence toward others. These numbers paint a misleading portrait of those with mental illness, because in reality, less than five percent of violence in the United States is directly related to mental illness, according to a new analysis by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The researchers, who studied news articles from top-tier media outlets over a 20-year period, say that this heavy reporting of such a small figure unfairly alters the perception of the readers to believe that most people with mental illness are prone to violence when extensive research has shown that only a small percent ever commit such acts.

The researchers were quite surprised at how little has changed regarding this subject over the last several decades. In fact, the portrayals may have increased the stigma toward people with mental illness. For example, in the first decade of the study period (1994 to 2005), just one percent of newspaper stories linking violence with mental illness appeared on the front page, compared with 18 percent in the second decade (2005 to 2014).

“Most people with mental illness are not violent toward others and most violence is not caused by mental illness, but you would never know that by looking at media coverage of incidents,” says study leader Emma E. “Beth” McGinty, Ph.D., MS, an assistant professor in the departments of Health Policy and Management and Mental Health at the Bloomberg School.

“Despite all of the work that has been done to reduce stigma associated with mental health issues, this portrayal of mental illness as closely linked with violence exacerbates a false perception about people with these illnesses, many of whom live healthy, productive lives.

“In an ideal world, reporting would make clear the low percentage of people with mental illness who commit violence.”

In any given year, 20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from mental illness and, over a lifetime, roughly 50 percent receive a diagnosis.

For the study, the researchers studied a random sample of 400 news articles that had covered some aspect of mental illness over a 20-year period. All articles appeared in 11 high-circulation, high-viewership media outlets in the United States.

The findings show that the most frequently mentioned topic across the study period was violence (55 percent), with 38 percent mentioning violence against others and 29 percent linking mental illness with suicide. Treatment was mentioned in 47 percent of the stories, but just 14 percent described successful treatment for or recovery.

“Stories about successful treatment have the potential to decrease stigma and provide a counter image to depictions of violence, but there are not that many of these types of narratives depicted in the news media,” McGinty says.

A deeper look into the media coverage found that stories of mass shootings by individuals with mental illness increased over the course of the study period, from nine percent of all news stories in the first decade to 22 percent in the second decade.

The number of mass shootings, however, has remained steady over that time period, according to FBI statistics. Among the stories that reported violence toward others, 38 percent mentioned that mental illness can increase the risk of such violence while only eight percent mentioned that most people with mental illness are never or rarely violent toward others.

The specific mental illness most frequently connected to violence in the news was schizophrenia (17 percent) and the two most frequently mentioned risk factors for violence other than mental illness were drug use (five percent) and stressful life events (five percent).

One limitation of the study is that it did not include stories from local television news, where a large proportion of Americans get their news.

McGinty says that the negative reporting adds to the perception that people with mental illness are dangerous. This is a stigmatizing portrayal that prior studies have shown leads to a desire for social distance from people with mental illness.

She concedes, however, that it may be difficult for members of the news media not to assume mental illness is in play because of the idea among many that anyone who would commit violence, especially mass shootings, must have mental illness.

“Anyone who kills people is not mentally healthy. We can all agree on that,” McGinty says. “But it’s not necessarily true that they have a diagnosable illness. They may have anger or emotional issues, which can be clinically separate from a diagnosis of mental illness.”

“Violence may stem from alcohol or drug use, issues related to poverty or childhood abuse. But these elements are rarely discussed. And as a result, coverage is skewed toward assuming mental illness first.”

The findings are published in the journal Health Affairs.

Source: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Man with gun photo by shutterstock.