Synopsis: Media has a huge impact on how people perceive mental illnesses. Historically in popular media, portrayals of mental illnesses were mostly negative and stigmatizing. Characters with mental illnesses were often portrayed as the villain who was extremely violent. However, over time, there began conversations about humanising mentally ill individuals and media started shifting away from these violent harmful stereotypes. However, this caused a new problem where the media started romanticizing and sensationalizing mental illnesses. In this article, we look at how these portrayals are harmful and how mental illnesses need to be portrayed.
From vilification to romanticization: Viewing mental disorders from the lens of media
Mental illness and abnormalities have been a subject in the media for a long time. Media can have a huge impact on how mental illnesses are perceived by the general public. However, many studies have found that the portrayal of mental illnesses and abnormalities is not always favourable or accurate. This can lead to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and stigmatization of mental disorders. Social cognitive theory talks about “symbolizing capability,” which means that people process and transform experiences into cognitive models using symbols that help in judgment and action. Depictions of people who are mentally ill in the media act as symbols of mental illness as a whole. It also helps people understand what life with mental disorders is like and provides vicarious experiences (Padhy et. al., 2014). This makes it crucial for the media to portray mental illnesses and disorders in an accurate and empathetic manner. However, according to a study by Gerber and Tannenbaum (1960), a comparative analysis of mental health content of the mass media and expert views and public ideas revealed that the portrayal of mental illness in the mass media was unlike both expert and public conceptions held by the populations studied. The media image in fact could divert public ideas away from that of experts’ towards “bizarre, sordid, fearful, or frivolous portrayals of the subject” (Gerber and Tannenbaum, 1960).
Over the course of time, there have been multiple portrayals of individuals with mental disorders as villainous characters. This was especially prevalent in horror movies like Psycho, The Boston Strangler, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Silence of The Lambs and so many more (Marshall, 2017). The killers in such movies are always portrayed to have some kind of mental illness which remains unspecified. Recurrent themes like this will lead audiences to create a perception of mentally ill individuals as harmful or dangerous, thereby creating a stigma. These portrayals can have a serious impact on the lives of those dealing with mental disorders. Many patients with mental health disorders report that they have been negatively impacted by media portrayals of the disorder, they have experienced increased anxiety and depression and also been mistreated by neighbours.
Recently, there has been a shift towards being more accepting of mental disorders and breaking down the taboo surrounding mental health-related topics. Media portrayal has moved towards humanizing mental illnesses and their symptoms. However, with this shift, we also have a dangerous shift towards romanticization and sensationalization of mental illnesses, particularly depression and anxiety. This is most commonly observed in social media platforms like Tumblr where posts about self-harm are sensationalized and treated as something “beautiful”. Multiple posts have aesthetic images with text that relate to mental illness (Yu, 2019). While social media platforms provide a great opportunity for individuals to open up about their mental health struggles, start discussions around the same and seek social support, it is worrying when impressionable young teens are exposed to sensationalizing content regarding mental illnesses. This kind of framing of mental illnesses as aesthetic and beautiful can lead to people who are not diagnosed with mental illnesses to view them as desirable and an attractive characteristic of one’s personality. They may also seek the attention they believe people with mental illnesses get and perpetuate a cycle of self-pity. The impact of this on people who have actual mental illnesses is that they start to believe their symptoms are part of who they are and prevent them from seeking help like therapy. It also leads to inaccurate narratives of mental illnesses being popularized and ignoring the real struggles that are faced by people with mental illnesses (Shrestha, 2018).
This trend of romanticizing mental illness has also been observed in mainstream media like television and movies. A prime example of this is Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which deals with suicide and depression but fails to accurately portray this. There have been many criticisms of this show’s portrayal of suicide. In this show, the main character dies by suicide after leave 13 cassette tapes targetting each person that caused her death. This creates a narrative that she gained power over her bullies after her death and got her revenge. She regained control over her life only after her death. This sends a very dangerous message to young teenagers who watch this show and look at suicide as a viable solution to their problems (Shrestha, 2018). Another important negative effect of such shows is that suicide can be contagious. After the release of 13 Reasons Why, there was a surge in searches related to suicide which can be dangerous as these searches correlate with actual suicide (Yu, 2019).
This phenomenon of contagious suicide can also be observed when suicide reportings in the news are sensationalized and described in details. There is also the risk of imitative suicidal behaviours. It has been observed that imitative suicides are more common within 2 weeks of the first event, when there is high media coverage, and when the person described in the reports are similar to the person in some way or when the person described in the report is someone who the person looks up to. Young people with depression or substance abuse disorder are also more vulnerable to imitative suicides (Padhy et. al., 2014).
Therefore it is crucial that media portrayals of mental illnesses are accurate and not sensationalized or triggering. The American Psychiatric Association provides certain guidelines for reporting on mental health. This can also be applied to characters who are represented as having mental illnesses. This involves asking whether the mental illness is relevant to the story, and why there is a need to mention it. This is especially relevant in news articles and media relating to crime. The other guideline is to check the sources and make sure the reporting of a particular mental disorder is accurate and factual. Another important aspect is the language used to describe the illness. One must avoid derogatory and stigmatizing language like “psycho”, “crazy” etc. when talking about mental illnesses. It is also important to understand that mental illnesses vary in their symptoms and it is important to be specific. The person being talked about should not be defined by their mental illness (“Words Matter: Reporting on Mental Health Conditions”, 2021). These are some important guidelines to keep in mind while reporting mental illnesses or writing characters that are mentaly ill. Accurate and empathetic portrayals that humanise individuals with mental illness are very important as it validates people’s experiences and allows audiences to understand and empathise with mentally ill individuals instead of alienating them.
Marshall, C. (2017). Hollywood made monsters of the mentally ill and here are 14 films that prove it. Retrieved 21 May 2021, from https://metro.co.uk/2017/11/01/hollywood-made-monsters-of-the-mentally-ill-and-here-are-14-films-that-prove-it-7041227/.
Padhy, Susanta & Khatana, S & Sarkar, Siddharth. (2014). Media and mental illness: Relevance to India. Journal of postgraduate medicine. 60. 163-70.
Shrestha, A. (2018) Echo: the Romanticization of Mental Illness on Tumblr. 69 Echo: the Romanticization of Mental Illness on Tumblr| Anima Shrestha.
Words Matter: Reporting on Mental Health Conditions. (2021). Retrieved 21 May 2021, from https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/reporting-on-mental-health-conditions.
Yu, J. (2019). From Stigmatized to Sensationalized. Retrieved 21 May 2021, from https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/May-2019/From-Stigmatized-to-Sensationalized.