If you know more about mental illness, it's easier to distinguish between fact and fiction.
Unless you majored in psychology or attended medical school, chances are the bulk of your knowledge about mental illness comes from the newspapers you read, the television shows you watch and the movies you see. Studies indicate that mass media is one of the public’s primary sources of information about disorders such as bipolar, schizophrenia and depression.
The catch? Research also suggests most media portrayals of mental illness are stereotypical, negative or flat-out wrong – meaning many people gain an unfavorable or inaccurate view of those with psychological disorders simply by skimming a few sentences or picking up a remote control.
“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.'”
Over time, the media has slowly become conscious of these harmful portrayals, experts say. In 2013, the Associated Press added an entry on mental illness to its Style Book to help journalists write about mental illness fairly and accurately. And in recent years, Hinshaw notes, screenwriters have made an effort to portray more humanized characterizations of individuals with mental illness – for example, Carrie Mathison on Showtime’s “Homeland, " who has bipolar disorder; Bradley Cooper’s character in “Silver Linings Playbook;" and John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning economist with schizophrenia in “A Beautiful Mind.”
Still needed, Hinshaw says, are more realistic portrayals of the everyday struggles associated with mental illness. And despite new scientific advances in the understanding and treatment of mental illness, recent studies indicate that media depictions of mental illness are as outdated and harmful as ever, says Dr. Otto Wahl, director of the graduate institute of professional psychology at Connecticut's University of Hartford and author of “Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness.”
If media representations of mental illness aren’t improving, individuals can at least become aware of the insidious portrayals that shape their perceptions of real-life people with psychological disorders. That way, they can distinguish between fact and fiction, stereotype and reality and the characters onscreen vs. their real life peers.
Here are a few common, inaccurate and misleading media stereotypes of people with mental illness:
People with mental illnesses are criminal or violent. Studies show that not only are individuals with mental illness less likely to commit violent crimes, they’re actually more likely to be victimized. Still, Wahl points out, many news outlets conflate mental illness with violence. A common news account of mental illness, for instance, involves a sensationalized and violent crime in which an innocent person is killed by a mental health patient. The article is laced with graphic descriptions, emotional diction and a glaring headline. It also depicts the mentally ill person as devoid of social identity and dangerous, capricious, aggressive and irrational.
This goes for fictional media, too. For instance, TV characters who’ve been identified as having a mental illness are typically shown as violent, says Don Diefenbach, professor and chair of mass communications at University of North Carolina–Asheville, who researches media portrayals of mental health issues.
Diefenbach analyzed the portrayals of psychological disorders on prime time television. He found that characters 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.
People with mental illness look different than others. Maybe it’s the disheveled hair. Maybe it’s the rumpled clothes. Maybe it’s the wild eyes. Whatever it is, Wahl notes, there’s usually something “different” about the appearances of people with mental illnesses – be it on TV shows or in video games, movies or comics. These traits serve as visual signifiers to cast these characters – who are often threatening or evil – as the “other.”
Many homeless people – who often lack the resources or wherewithal to take care of their appearances – are mentally ill. “But there are also a huge number of people with mental illnesses who are getting up – showering every day, going to work, etc., ” Wahl says.
In short? People with mental illness look like, well, everyone else – not like their media stereotypes.