Bringing Awareness to Mental Health in the Media

As our culture becomes more aware of mental illness, its causes and impact on our lives, has media followed? Is the media becoming a more compassionate messenger about the impact of behavioral health? Or is it worsening the stigma and creating greater dissonance?

While we are moving away from the blatant stereotypes in mental health (think “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” 1975), we aren’t completely rid of the exaggerated and sensationalistic portrayal of mental health in the media. According to Dr. Graham Davey, “the media regularly plays a role in perpetuating stigmatizing stereotypes of people with mental health problems… cinematic depictions of schizophrenia are often stereotypic and characterized by misinformation about symptoms, causes and treatment.” Davey goes on to say that these stereotypic characterizations often depict patients with schizophrenia or other mental health disorders as dangerous to society (Psychology Today, Aug 2013). Such mischaracterizations are not useful for anyone.

Complex diagnoses become oversimplified through the lens of the media and this casts an unnecessary shadow over an entire population that is already misunderstood by the general public. Organizations such as the World Psychiatric Association are advocating for societal and media-based efforts to change stigma associated with mental illness. But which comes first, our own ideas of what mental illness is, based on our knowledge and experience, or our guided perceptions perpetuated by media persuasion and bias?

Most of us have some personal understanding of mental health challenges, either from our own experiences with it or having known someone who has struggled with mood disorder, anxiety or another emotional health challenge. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five adults (43.8 million people) will experience mental illness in a given year. Of that population, one in 25 (10 million people) will experience mental illness that is significant enough to interfere with life and limit activity. With those odds, it is highly likely that you or someone you love is dealing with mental health issues. Some of our understanding stems from what we know about the struggles of our friends and family members, and the rest typically comes from what we see depicted in the media: in movies, TV shows, social media and on the evening news.

News programs frequently share that a perpetrator of a crime was “recently treated for mental illness” and allude to mental illness as a probable explanation for the behavior. In the quest to understand the reasons for criminal behavior—and in the interest of time and shock-value—news organizations tend to look for an easy explanation rather than an overview of the person. It takes time and effort to research a person’s life circumstances, trauma history, genetic composition and socioeconomic challenges of those who commit crimes, whereas it’s easier and more concise to say “he/she was mentally ill,” even though this leaves an incomplete picture of the person and instills fear into the general public about people with mental illness. Every now and then, it would be nice to see a news story that reports, “Man with depression saves the lives of 40 people.” Let’s hear THAT story, for a change.

Spend five minutes on social media and one will inevitably encounter a variety of “memes” depicting quotes about depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges. These memes serve to educate and advocate about these conditions, and also serve as an unspoken reminder that often people who struggle with these conditions do so quietly and as a result do not get the recognition and support they need.

Social media has had a significant impact on informing the general public of mental health issues. And it is consumer driven. WE decide on the content and broadcast that is considered important. A person who isolates him/herself due to depressive symptoms can quietly share a meme about this struggle and immediately gain support from peers; this is a positive and powerful tool. By no means will it cure depression or mental illness, but the validation and ability to communicate about it in a non-threatening format is a major benefit.

An interesting byproduct of media coverage on mental health is our increased tendency for self-diagnosis and diagnosis of others. It seems as if a huge segment of the population is self-diagnosing Bipolar Disorder or OCD, without having had an assessment to determine validity. While this is concerning to a degree, the fact that we are more open to thinking and talking about our own mental health is a true victory. Perhaps this is the greatest impact media has had on mental health; people are more inclined to speak up rather than try to keep mental health challenges hidden. There is true liberation in identifying our struggles openly and without shame.

As we learn more about behavioral health and its causes, we are also more able to connect the brain to the body in our thought processes about health. Media plays a part in helping to integrate the mind and body connection into mainstream thinking. More media coverage about mental health also increases the chance of early intervention and treatment, which can reduce a great deal of suffering for those who struggle with mental health challenges.

We have a journey ahead of us in correcting media bias toward mental health, but baby, we’ve come a long way.

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