(Mis)Representations of Mental Illness in the Media (Film & TV)

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When mentally ill people are constantly villainized, stigmatized, and stereotyped in the media, then society inevitably buys into that false image that has been painted. The media has irrefutably contributed to society’s negative attitude towards people with mental illnesses. This negative attitude has significantly built up the stigma around mentally ill people today that makes it so hard to discuss our experiences and feelings.

“The worst stereotypes come out in such depictions: mentally ill individuals as incompetent, dangerous, slovenly, undeserving,” says Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at the University of California–Berkeley. “The portrayals serve to distance ‘them’ from the rest of ‘us.’”

~ “Mental illness” is used as a catch-all phrase to describe someone’s condition, as opposed to specific medical terminologies such as “schizophrenia” or “anxiety disorder.” And even then, little variation is shown from patient to patient; one movie portrayal of bipolar disorder tends to resemble another. There’s no discussion that each disease is different in each person, because each person is unique. In real life, mental illness shows up differently in everybody. The media does not represent the complexity of mental illness in general. There’s this sense that it’s just a one-name-fits-everybody, or one-title-fits-everybody.

~ People with mental illnesses are childish and silly. Many movies and TV shows – for example, “Me, Myself and Irene,” starring Jim Carrey as a patient with dissociative identity disorder, or “Monk,” the show about a detective with obsessive-compulsive disorder – make light of mental illnesses. They portray otherwise serious psychological conditions as mere quirks, or those who have them as silly, funny and childlike. These portrayals don’t convey the way most people with serious mental illnesses are in pain. In reality, they hurt. They’re struggling.

~ The idea that love, particularly in a romantic sense, can easily “cure” mental illnesses. Mental illness is portrayed as something that can be easily resolved by simply finding the right person. (Silver Linings Playbook, It’s Kind of a Funny Story)

~ The idea that psychotic people are inherently evil. While it is a fact that some violent crimes are carried out by people with psychotic illness, this is a completely inaccurate generalization. In fact, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators. Characters on TV who were identified through behavior or label as having a mental illness were 10 times more likely than other TV characters to commit a violent crime – and between 10 to 20 times more likely to commit a violent crime than someone with a mental illness would be in real life. (Split, Silence of the Lambs)

~ The general romanticization of mental illnesses. Bringing attention to mental illnesses is one thing, but glamorizing them and using them to spice up a story is another.

~ People with mental illnesses can’t recover. “Recovery is seldom shown” in the media. When people [are shown seeking] therapy, when they go to psychiatric hospitals – rarely do they get better. If they do get better it’s enough that they’re stabilized, but not enough so that they’re integrated with the world, and have friends and jobs. The resulting message is that individuals with mental illnesses have no hope for a “normal” life. The reality is that this isn’t true: Experts say not only do patients often recover from psychiatric illnesses, but they can live healthy lives with the help of medications, therapy and support networks.

~ Psychiatric hospitals cause more harm than good. Many films and television shows continue to portray psychiatric hospitals as bereft of comfort or care – empty corridors, bare walls and intimidating wings filled with manipulative doctors whose treatments cause more harm than good. Patients are often shown as committed against their will, or psychotic and out-of-control. While all medical facilities differ in quality and care, today’s psychiatric wards and treatments are different – even if the public’s perception of them isn’t. Despite the common television or movie theme of a patient being sent to a psychiatric hospital against his or her will, that’s often not the case. In reality, a great number of people elect to go to psychiatric wards dispelling the notion that most patients are involuntarily committed. Laws differ from state to state, but on average it’s difficult to send patients to a psychiatric ward against their will.

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