There is a common saying in the media that, ‘content is king.’ However, due to the media’s overwhelming portrayal of individuals struggling with mental health as violent or unstable, a more accurate statement would be: context is power.
In 2013, according to eMarketer, the average time spent with major media per day by a U.S. adult is 11 hours, 52 minutes.  Due to the revolution of the Internet and digital consumption, the media’s influence is becoming more ubiquitous and, as a result, the media’s interpretation of mental health has the ability to continue to stigmatize misconceptions or redefine an equitable depiction of mental health.
Unfortunately, many Americans continue to associate mental health issues and disorders with cases of erratic, violent, and extreme individuals and/or behavior. In recent news, notable examples of the negative characteristics perpetuated by the media have varied from celebrity outbursts to tragic violence.
Solange Knowles (younger sister to singer, Beyoncé Knowles) attacked her brother-in-law, Jay-Z, this month. It has been alleged from various media channels and outlets that Solange’s attack is symptomatic of her mental health issues with bipolar disorder.
Without a credible, authorized source affirming this speculation, the media crafts a negative profile associated with bipolar disorder. As a result, the general public is prone to view specific behaviors as exclusive to the respective mental disorder. This depiction can fortify barriers for individuals who, unbeknownst to them, are struggling with bipolar disorder but cannot identify with behaviors the media highlights. Therefore, they are less likely to seek the proper treatment in order to manage or cope with their conditions.
In more extreme cases of violent behavior, such as school shootings, mental health is speculated as the cause of these tragic events. The general public subsequently reserves mental health and/or disorders for ‘crazy, unstable, violent’ individuals.
However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four Americans experience a mental health disorder every year. Without a more realistic and equitable portrayal of profiles and narratives that reflect pervasive conditions that affect many people, individuals suffer in silence. Studies from several countries have consistently found that even after a family member has developed clear signs of a psychotic disorder, on average it is over a year until the unwell person first receives assessment and treatment.
Fortunately, there is evidence of positive progression reflecting diverse images representing mental health. Hollywood has created box office hits depicting mental health in relatable, emotional and vulnerable journeys that resonates with many. A few examples:
“Temple Grandin”: a 2010 biopic about the life of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who revolutionized practices for the human handling of livestock on cattle ranches and slaughterhouses.
“Garden State”: a 2004 film about 26-year-old, Andrew Largeman, who is battling depression but must face his troubles when he returns home to his estranged family for the first time in ten years for his mother’s funeral.
The protagonists of these films reveal day-to-day challenges associated with autism and depression, thus inviting dialogue among populations with similar issues. Temple Grandin also redefines autism from an illness to an undiscovered potential.
The media has a unique opportunity to advocate for safe spaces, dialogue, and policy change to shift mental health into a more positive limelight. The behavioral health industry must continue to advance its efforts to inform the media of relatable stories and individuals suffering from mental health issues—for in order to redefine the stigma, we must redefine the context.
Simone Laroche believes stories are the most powerful vehicle to connectivity. A creative storyteller from her youth, she channeled this passion into her career after attending Syracuse University – majoring in Communications & Entrepreneurship/Emerging Enterprises. Two years ago she was developing TV shows in Los Angeles, before making the pivot in her journey to intersect her philosophy of businesses for social good. She believes social enterprises are the most powerful and sustainable vehicles to incite change. Simone has since dedicated her skills to help develop strategy, marketing and communications for non-profits and social enterprises. In order to not take life too seriously, Simone enjoys awkward moments, travel, soccer, astrology, outdoor activities, good food and good conversation – also, TED talks are her jam.