Dangerous and disturbed: Media misportrayals of mental illness

How is mental illness depicted in entertainment? In news? What about the healthcare professionals who treat mental illness? And most importantly, do those media depictions influence public perceptions and behaviors?

I synthesized decades of research on the topic from diverse academic disciplines for a chapter in the book, Communicating Mental Health: History, Contexts, and Perspectives (Lexington Books). The findings were troubling:

People

  • Characters with explicit or implicit mental illness are common across entertainment media, but are almost always depicted in stigmatizing ways. They are dangerous, unpredictable, and frequently commit violent criminal acts.
  • News coverage of mental illness is almost entirely through the prism of violent crime.
  • In both news and entertainment, people with mental illness lack any other identity – they are fully defined by their disorder.
  • Limited “favorable” portrayals of mental illness are subject to debate. For instance, the savant-like intelligence of characters like Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, Dr. Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor, or Sherlock Holmes in the modern-day BBC series are heralded by some, but criticized by others who view them as oversimplifying the whole of the person. All of those protagonists are also referred to, often comedically, as people who could suddenly go on sprees of mass murder. Hilarious!

Treatment

  • Mental health professionals are underutilized in mental health content – both as sources in news coverage and as characters in scripted entertainment.
  • Mental health professionals in TV and film are highly unscrupulous, sleeping with patients, overprescribing medication, and engaging in damaging, long-abandoned therapy techniques.
  • Explanations for mental illness – if any are given – are almost always environmental rather than biological.

Effects

  • Public perceptions of mental illness trace media depictions. A majority of people the world over see people with mental illness as dangerous, violent, and unpredictable. They also fail to make distinctions between the severity of different types of mental disorders and their connection to these negative traits.
  • The most common behavioral response to these attitudes is to create social and physical distance from people with mental illness.
  • People fear getting help, both because of the societal stigma attached, and distrust of mental health professionals.

Prescriptions

  • Just as studies have found that media stigmatization of mental illness and its treatment affects real-world perceptions, a smaller number of experimental designs suggest that destigmatizing media messages can be used for correction. The era of prestige drama in television, with its emphasis on character development, seems the most fertile field for more accurate representations.

The rest of the chapter is designed for graduate students and both academic and clinical researchers. It gives an overview of research methods and media-centric theoretical frameworks to continue investigation into the topic.

Are you using this summary or the chapter itself for a class or some other public purpose? I’d love to know about it! Drop me a note.

Image courtesy Jessica Anglin on Pinterest.

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