Monday, February 8, 2010

Mental Health Monday: Portrayal of Mental Illness in Current Media

I’ve been heavy-headingly making my way through these past couple of days with a nasty head cold, so unfortunately I don’t have any thing remotely close to incredible insight that I can offer for this week’s blog.

That being said, when I sat down at my computer this morning in order to decide what to write about, one thought came to mind: media portrayal. To give the media a fair chance, I will start by stating that they are not always entirely horrible. However….they do tend to be pretty inaccurate/upper-extreme in their portrayals of a variety of things.

i.e. What kind of people are feminists? According to media portrayals, they are generally the bitchy women who managed to make their way to the top of a business management, and will leave work (after an over-time shift) to return home to their lesbian relationship. Heaven forbid that a stay-at-home mom could be a feminist. Or her husband could be, for that matter. (I hope you notice my sarcasm.)

Anyway, noticing such inaccurate/incomplete/upper-extreme portrayals (such as the one mentioned above) made me wonder what kind of portrayal mental-illness is given in today’s media. I had one “positive” example come to mind, and that is the movie “The Beautiful Mind.” In the movie, the main character (John Nash) has a form of schizophrenia, causing him to form relationships (that, in his reality, are very much real) that are unaccepted as "real" by the standard measure of reality. He is not portrayed as someone who has "escaped from the looney bin and needs to be put back" but rather as someone who faces a struggle and tries to overcome it, much like one struggle against any other illness. You see parts of the personal aspect of treating mental illness...Nash informs his doctor with regret that he is stopped taking his medication, as he felt that it changed him entirely and he was no longer able to do things that he was formally able to do. Subsequently, you see the relapses that he endures into his [acceptably-false] reality as he re-establishes his relationships with characters who are simply creations of his own mind. And, toward the end of the movie, you can see the cautious approach that he holds in life, as to not unintentionally relapse into an active bout of schizophrenia.

However, apart from this movie, when I think of mental-healtl portrayal within the media, I can't quite put my finger on why this is (i.e. no immediate movies or TV shows etc come to mind as proof of this) but I recognise that, in general, there has been a very negative stigma attached to mental-illness. I can recall various TV shows in which the person facing a struggle in mental-health is viewed as an outcast, etc.

And this made me on earth ARE we to portray mental health in our media? Part of me wants to fight for my belief that "people are people, regardless of medicinal diagnosis" and accordingly not have the media recognise mentally-ill people as any different than any other people....but then this fails to raise awareness on mental health issues. The modern-day media is undoubtedly the fastest way to bring people's attention to something, whether it is through movies, magazines, facebook ads, etc....the media is in our face all the time.

So, what do you think? How should the media be portraying mental-health? How can it use its resources to raise accurate awareness on the issues surrounding mental-health? Not simply exposing the "extreme" cases in a negative light, but to authentically educate our general public with the realities surrounding mental health.

I would love to hear your thoughts on:

- the way YOU see mental health being portrayed throughout our media

- the way YOU think mental health SHOULD be portrayed

- and anything else :).



  1. No original thoughts from me, but I'm reminded of a recent NYT article that gave an interesting counterargument to selling a biomedical, "disease like any other" narrative of mental illness as a means to combat stigma. Haven't looked up the cited studies or anything, but his point seems worth thinking about. The whole article is interesting (, but here's a relevant excerpt:

    “The results of the current study suggest that we may actually treat people more harshly when their problem is described in disease terms,” Mehta wrote. “We say we are being kind, but our actions suggest otherwise.” The problem, it appears, is that the biomedical narrative about an illness like schizophrenia carries with it the subtle assumption that a brain made ill through biomedical or genetic abnormalities is more thoroughly broken and permanently abnormal than one made ill though life events. “Viewing those with mental disorders as diseased sets them apart and may lead to our perceiving them as physically distinct. Biochemical aberrations make them almost a different species.”

    In other words, the belief that was assumed to decrease stigma actually increased it. Was the same true outside the lab in the real world?

    The question is important because the Western push for “mental-health literacy” has gained ground. Studies show that much of the world has steadily adopted this medical model of mental illness. Although these changes are most extensive in the United States and Europe, similar shifts have been documented elsewhere. When asked to name the sources of mental illness, people from a variety of cultures are increasingly likely to mention “chemical imbalance” or “brain disease” or “genetic/inherited” factors.

    Unfortunately, at the same time that Western mental-health professionals have been convincing the world to think and talk about mental illnesses in biomedical terms, we have been simultaneously losing the war against stigma at home and abroad. Studies of attitudes in the United States from 1950 to 1996 have shown that the perception of dangerousness surrounding people with schizophrenia has steadily increased over this time. Similarly, a study in Germany found that the public’s desire to maintain distance from those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia increased from 1990 to 2001.

    Researchers hoping to learn what was causing this rise in stigma found the same surprising connection that Mehta discovered in her lab. It turns out that those who adopted biomedical/genetic beliefs about mental disorders were the same people who wanted less contact with the mentally ill and thought of them as more dangerous and unpredictable. This unfortunate relationship has popped up in numerous studies around the world. In a study conducted in Turkey, for example, those who labeled schizophrenic behavior as akil hastaligi (illness of the brain or reasoning abilities) were more inclined to assert that schizophrenics were aggressive and should not live freely in the community than those who saw the disorder as ruhsal hastagi (a disorder of the spiritual or inner self). Another study, which looked at populations in Germany, Russia and Mongolia, found that “irrespective of place . . . endorsing biological factors as the cause of schizophrenia was associated with a greater desire for social distance.”

  2. yes!
    So glad you posted that comment, Tamsyn :).

    It's really interesting to note form that excerpt that "those who adopted biomedical/genetic beliefs about mental disorders were the same people who wanted less contact with the mentally ill."

    because I would definitely say I am naturally inclined toward the thought that, in order to eliminate stigma, we ought to educate people about the realities of mental health. But then, here, it seems as if "education" about mental illness actually increases the negative stigma? Crazy.

    But then, we resign ourselves to not even raise awareness about the realities of mental health? Because, perhaps not with all cases, but with some individuals (here, I am thinking of particularly a few of my beloved friends) I don't think I would be very good at loving them (not that I wouldn't try...I mean more that I wouldn't necessarily know how to love them in terms that are desired by them) without first understanding their "illness."

    So it looks as, while there are "cons" to firmly identifying various mental-health instances, it seems as if there are also some pretty big pros.
    I don't know...other's thoughts??

    --- and on an entirely different note..
    it also reminds me of one of [Foucault']? points of view in regarding mental illness.... if I understand him correctly, he questions why anyone's "reality" should be viewed with any more/less authenticity than any one else's "reality." A really interesting arguement that he presents....