By: Isabella Anonuevo
Mental illness has been an ongoing controversial topic for several years in terms of how it has many negative portrayals in society. When hearing the words “mental illness” or “mental disability”, it is more often than not associated with a person being “crazy” or “dangerous”. This is a part of the stigma associated with mental health that continues to pull society backwards. It is not only damaging, but can be harmful to a person’s healing. Mental illness is depression. It is schizophrenia. It is post-partum depression. It is anxiety. It is post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental illness can be many different things. One of the biggest influences of society is the media. The media includes the news, articles, magazines, radio stations, apps, websites, and more. As the public perception continues to correlate mental illness with violence, more people are suffering in silence in fear of being viewed in a negative way.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of how society and the media display mental illness, or what is associated with mental illnesses. We will start off with some of the most common associations, that even children this day might believe.
This is a clip of the trailer for Shutter Island, a popular movie starring Leonardo DeCaprio:
As you can see, the movie claims that mental health hospitals are dark, dreary, and haunted. Additionally, you can see how the video portrays that mental health patients are mistreated and totally helpless. If you have seen the movie, you would know that they also portray psychiatrists as evil, and that people with schizophrenia are violent. Another movie example would be the infamous “Joker.” This movie also highly associates mental illness with extreme acts of violence. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good fictional movie and storyline, however, that’s just what it is. FICTIONAL. Unfortunately, these cinematic stories play a significant role on society’s views and attitudes towards people with mental illnesses. One of the best steps we can take to change this is to become educated on the facts and spread the awareness.
Looking into other media sources, such as the news, it is easy to pick up that there is a common conception that gun violence or acts of violence in general is directly linked to a person’s mental illness. In other words, the media often portrays that the reason a person acted out in violence was because they have a mental illness.
In this video you can see a clip of our President Trump stating that mental health and hatred are the causes of the recent acts of gun violence.
This next video shows an entire news portion where they are suggesting that mental illness is the cause of violent acts. After talking about the perpetrators, the news castors automatically talk about the mental status of them. You might be asking, “what is wrong with that?” or, “aren’t they just shining the light on the need for more available help for people suffering with mental health?” While that may be true, it’s the way they portray acts of violence such as homicides and mass shootings as the norm for people with mental illnesses when, in fact, there are other factors.
Fortunately, we can use media to do just the opposite- to decrease the stigma against mental health and to spread awareness of how important that is.
I wrote about movies having an effect on society’s attitude towards mental health, using examples such as “Shutter Island” and “Joker,” where mental illnesses and their treatments are associated with violence, misery, darkness, and even evil. Research has shown that these movies promote negative perceptions of mental health, and that it may lead to shameful and fearful feelings from people who are suffering (Cerully, Acosta, & Sloan, 2018). This just touches the tip of the iceberg when discussing the stigma of mental health.
Despite the prevalence of mental health (1 in 4 people are suffering), society still has a lack of understanding (Flynn, 2017). A mental illness may have the same impact on a person as a physical illness, yet research shows that society continues to treat it differently when it comes to understanding and ACCEPTANCE. With that being said, let’s talk about something called “fear inducing stigma.” Fear inducing stigma places the blame on mental illness and the waterfall effects that will happen if mental illnesses are not treated. For example, Flynn (2017) uses this statement as an example of fear inducing stigma: “if American’s do not treat the mentally ill, America will continue to experience mass violent shootings, and if this continues people’s guns will be taken away.” As you can see, this statement places the blame solely on mental illness, and people who might really value their right to bear arms will automatically do the same. Contrary to the belief, only 5% of perpetrators out of 120,000-gun crimes were suffering from a mental illness (Flynn, 2017).
What we really need to understand is that there are risk factors involved when it comes to mental illness and acts of violence. Risk factors include: “a history of past violence, juvenile detention, physical abuse, parental arrest record, and substance abuse.” The data also confirmed that violence by someone suffering from a mental illness WITHOUT substance abuse was very minimal (Johnson, Van Dorn, & Volavka, 2012). This proves that mental illness should not be singled out when it comes to the reason an act of violence, such as mass shootings, was done.
What can you take away from this?
It is easy for media to reinforce the stigma and negative associations of mental illness. Additionally, the constant association with mental illness being the cause of violence is harmful to society in that we become less accepting and supportive. This has a large impact on the people who are suffering from mental illnesses because it makes them less likely to ask for help and receive the treatment they need. Remember, 1 in 4 people are SUFFERING from a mental illness. It is very likely that they are suffering in silence, and maybe they are afraid of what people might think of them. 1 in 4 people can easily be someone we know, and we would want them to know that it is okay to speak out or to ask for help. As we become more aware, we can start to notice the stigmatizing language displayed in different media sources, and even coming from the people around us. This is where we can educate others who don’t know any better, and even use our own social media platforms to spread awareness.
Cerully, J. L., Acosta, J. D., & Sloan, J. (2018). Mental Health Stigma and Its Effects on Treatment-Related Outcomes: A Narrative Review. Military Medicine, 183(11/12), e427–e437. https://doi.org/10.1093/milmed/usx219
Flynn, J. R. (2017). Break the Internet, Break the Stigma: The Promise of Emerging Technology & Media in Mental Health. Quinnipiac Health Law Journal, 20(1), 1–46. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lgs&AN=132846366&site=ehost-live
Johnson, N., Van Dorn, R., Volavka, J., (2012). Mental Disorder and Violence: Is There a Relationship Beyond Substance Use? Soc Psychiatry Epidemiol. 47, 487-503. doi:10.1007/s00127-011-0356-x.