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Don’t believe everything you see on TV: Misconceptions of mental illnesses in the media

Posted on 08-14-15 in Mental Health

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From movies to television shows, mental health disorders are widely portrayed in the media, leading viewers to form conceptions of these conditions based on what they perceive. According to studies, mass media is one of our country’s principal sources of information on mental illnesses. Studies also indicate that most media sticks to the stereotypical portrayal of mental illnesses. This trend only seems to compound negative stigmas already associated with mental health.

Stephen Hinshaw, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, states, “The worst stereotypes come out in such depictions: mentally ill individuals as incompetent, dangerous, slovenly, undeserving.” According to Hinshaw, these portrayals only create further distance between the mentally ill and the general population. Hinshaw does acknowledge that screenwriters have made an effort to more accurately and subtly portray mental illnesses in the media as opposed to the often extreme side of mental illnesses that has previously been shown on television.

Despite the efforts of Hollywood to more humanly represent mental illnesses, Hinshaw believes more realistic depictions of everyday struggles mentally ill people experience should be depicted. Dr. Otto Wahl, director of the University of Hartford’s Graduate Institute of Professional Psychology, authored a book titled “Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness,” discussing inaccurate portrayals of mental illness in the media. Wahl notes that the media has depicted people with mental illnesses as being violent criminals who are starkly different from the general population. Other common misconceptions about mental health issues popularized by the media include:

1. People who struggle with mental health disorders look different than other people: Characters with mental illnesses can often be portrayed as appearing physically different from their peers in television and movies. Wahl notes that these exaggerated physical traits, which are negative, serve as ways for the audience to visually identify these characters. However, many people with mental illnesses do not appear different on the surface when compared to the general population.

The homeless stereotype paints the picture of those who have such severe mental health problems, they have withdrawn from their families and even refused care. While this is a realistic depiction for some with mental health issues, Wahl says that there is still “a huge number of people with mental illnesses who are getting up – showering every day, going to work, etc.”

2. People who struggle with mental health disorders are more prone to be violent and commit crimes: Studies, such as a 1998 analysis published in the General Archives of Psychiatry by the MacArthur Risk Assessment Project, have shown there to be no significant evidence linking mental health disorders with more violent tendencies when compared to the general population. Some studies, like a study published in the journal Psychiatric Services entitled “Criminal victimization of persons with severe mental illness,” have indicated that those with mental health issues are more likely to be victimized by violent crimes rather than commit the crimes. Dan Deifenbach, professor and chair of the Department of Mass Communications at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, says that television characters presenting a mental illness are usually depicted as being violent. Deifenbach, who researches the portrayals of mental disorders in television, has found that characters identified as having a mental illness were 10 times more likely to be violent than other characters.

3. Mentally ill people are immature or incompetent: Some movies and television shows portray mental disorders as so dramatic, they almost appear comical. Even therapists are depicted as scatterbrained, neurotic individuals. These portrayals often distract the viewer from the severity of these conditions and prevent some from taking mental health treatment seriously.

The media uses numerous methods of drawing in viewer’s attention and often uses some form of shock value, which distracts viewers from the main issue at hand with those who struggle with mental illnesses. That said, mental illnesses affect 18.6 million Americans every day, many of which never receive treatment for their conditions. Curbing the progression of a mental illness starts with receiving treatment.

Sovereign Health Group is among the leading mental health treatment centers in the country. We provide a wide range of inpatient and outpatient treatment programs for patients who struggle with mental health disorders, drug addiction and dual diagnosis conditions. If you know someone in need of mental health treatment, please contact us at 888-530-4614.

Written by Benjamin Creekmore, Sovereign Health Group writer