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MEDIA | Magnify Mental Health | Magnify Mental Health


Media & Mental Health

Produced by: Laura Sansom

Media often falsely portrays mental health conditions, leading to an increase in stigma. If the media continues to spread this false vision future generations may be inaccurately learning about serious mental health conditions.

Media's Portrayal of Mental Health

Television, movies and social media sites present a specific idea about what people living with a mental health condition must be like, shaping the general public’s opinion on these conditions.

Many of these fictional and untrue portrayals of mental illnesses reiterate harmful stigmas and stereotypes. One stereotype that is portrayed largely across various types of media is the idea that people with mental illnesses are violent, aggressive and likely to commit crimes.

“We all are familiar with the ‘Halloween’ type movies where it's the person who is crazed,”Phil Lubitz, Director of Advocacy Programs for NAMI New Jersey, said. “He's depicted as a murderer, a mad killer. That really goes a long way in perpetrating sort of a hoax on the community that people with mental illness are dangerous.”

A study done by Don Diefenbach, professor and chair of mass communications at University of North Carolina–Asheville found that characters on primetime television who were identified as having a mental illness were 10 times more likely to commit a crime than television characters not identified as having mental illnesses.

The portrayal of those with mental illnesses in fictional situations as being violent leads to speculation around real-life crimes. People start believing that crimes were committed due to mental illnesses.

“The media’s out there in saying, ‘Well this person has been arrested this many times, they have this disorder or they were in jail for this, or they were in rehab for this,’ but in all reality, we don’t know if it really is the mental illness that quote-unquote ‘caused the person to behave the way that they were’ or if it was something completely different.” Lisa Corbin, assistant professor at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, said.

In reality, only about 4% of violence in the United States can be traced back to mental health problems.

These portrayals can not only lead to others viewing people with mental illnesses in a negative light but to people with mental illnesses seeing themselves in a negative light. This may lead to them not speaking up about their mental health because of fear of stigmatization and negative self-thought.

Diefenbach also found that different conditions were portrayed at an inaccurate rate when comparing them to the actual numbers. For example, only 7% of the characters with mental illnesses shown on television were depicted as living with depression. 12% of the television characters studied had some form of psychosis, such as schizophrenia. In reality, 6.7% of American adults have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. In comparison, 1.2% of Americans have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The media’s portrayal would have people believe that many more people are diagnosed with schizophrenia than are diagnosed with depression. This is probably because forms of psychosis are less known about and easier to stigmatize and portray even more negatively.

There need to be more positive and accurate portrayals of mental health in media. This will lessen the stigmas held by the general public, educate people who may not know a lot about mental illnesses and make people who do have mental illnesses feel more comfortable talking about them.

Written by: Laura Sansom


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