Despite the progress that’s been in understanding mental health in all of its aspects, the fact remains that the issue is extremely stigmatized. Mental health and illness affect everyone, but most are reluctant to discuss it, and do so with a sense of fear and shame. The sources of this stigma are numerous and complicated. Generations of socialization, a natural fear of illness, and the tendency to shun the misunderstood are all partially to blame. There’s another element at play, though, that’s not being sufficiently addressed: the media.
Media messages, as we all know, are everywhere. We look to them for entertainment, information, distraction, and guidance. They infiltrate our consciousness, and shape our culture. This puts them in an incredibly powerful position as a force for major social change.
As a student of communications and a member of campus mental health advocacy group Active Minds, my mission, both now and in my future career, is work with media to move them in the right direction on mental health.
Having experienced struggles with my own mental health, I’ve frequently been surprised by the ways that public perception of mental health often differs from reality. It’s alarmingly common to think of one’s own mental health as infallible, while placing judgment on those who don’t meet this impossible expectation. Stereotypes of people with mental illness as incompetent, weak, or even dangerous are not only common, but culturally accepted. Looking to the media, it doesn’t take long to find out where these false notions come from.
Firstly, references to mental health in the media, be they fiction or journalistic, focus almost exclusively on illness over wellness, as if it were a rare phenomenon. The reality that one in four people live with mental illness, and that it can affect anyone, is too often ignored in favor of sensationalized portrayals, often with an emphasis on violence.
Also common in the media are exploitations of mental health for humor. While there’s humor in even the darkest of situations, attempts at comedic treatment of mental illness are frequently dehumanizing and toxic. Having been a victim of stereotypes in the past, I’m concerned and unsettled by the frequency with which words like “crazy” and “psycho” are thrown about. Depictions of people with mental illness as inferior and deserving of mockery reinforce the notion that they are an acceptable target. Not only does this prevent many people from seeking the help they need, but it closes down the mental health conversation that we all need to be having. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over two thirds of people with a diagnosable mental illness don’t seek the help they need.
I became personally interested in the effects of the media on mental health perception after beginning to recover from my own bipolar disorder. In first two years of college, during which my symptoms reached a terrifying peak, I spent time as a patient in three psych wards, worked with several doctors, and took a medical leave from school in order to get myself well. It was a difficult and unexpected process, but a necessary one, and one that I’m grateful to be reaching the other end of. Looking back, I can see that my misconceptions and shame held me back from getting help sooner.
The more I’ve learned about mental health, both my own and in general, the more aware I’ve become of media images that work against the mission of ending stigma. As a student of communication, I strongly feel that collaboration between media and mental health advocates would be beneficial to work of both parties.
It is with that in mind that this blog sets forth to catalog and discuss media coverage and depictions of mental health and related issues. I’m hardly an expert, but I hope that at the very least this blog’s posts can serve as a jumping-off point for some interesting and relevant discussion.
So please participate! We all have a voice in ending stigma, and I’m here to help you make yours heard!
(The above post was adapted from a guest commentary at the request of The Ithacan for its December 5, 2012 edition. The commentary was not published). 662F6FATWYVG