Stomping the Stigma: Part 1 in a Series

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Thinking about the media and how it feeds mental health stigma

by Polly Guetta

“Several themes describe misconceptions about mental illness and corresponding stigmatizing attitudes. Media analyses of film and print have identified three: people with mental illness are homicidal maniacs who need to be feared; they have childlike perceptions of the world that should be marveled; or they are responsible for their illness because they have weak character.” — Patrick W. Corrigan, “Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness,” World Psychiatry

When I read the above quote, I was struck by its sad accuracy. It is certainly no wonder that people are reluctant to be open about their mental health concerns when these stereotypes continue to be reinforced by the media; nobody wants to be thought of as a potential murderer, a simple naïve child, or a weak-willed loser. As long as people continue to accept these false generalizations about mental health, stigma and mental health discrimination will, unfortunately, live on in our communities.

Although we have taken strides towards better mental health awareness in recent years, there is still a long way to go. The more that we talk about our own concerns and struggles, the more misconceptions will clear up creating room for more realistic ideas to take root. When we see someone in the public eye like Clara Hughes come forward about her own struggles, our grip on all of those negative stereotypes loosens. Wait, she not homeless, she’s not violent, she’s not weak-willed – maybe mental illness isn’t what I thought!

Encouraging people to disclose mental health concerns is one of the ways in which we can fight against stigma but as a society we need to do more. We can’t continue to foster an intolerant, prejudiced community and then expect individuals to take the risks that disclosure brings. The burden of fighting stigma cannot fall solely on the shoulders of those who are directly impacted by mental health issues. This is where the media needs to do better and stop creating programming stuffed with unrealistic portrayals, unfair characterizations, and narrow representations.

According to a report for Time to Change, an anti-stigma mental health campaign in the UK, characters with mental health problems are being depicted as more demonic and crueler than at any time in movie history. The report, Screening Madness, written by psychiatrist and film expert Dr. Peter Byrne reveals that film depictions of people with experience of mental health problems have become more damaging. Dr. Byrne writes “Mental health stereotypes have not changed over a century of cinema. If anything, the comedy is crueler and the deranged psycho killer even more demonic.”  The report also reveals that surveys have found that that the public gets its understanding of mental illness from movies, more than from any other type of media.

As consumers of media products, we have a choice of what to “buy” and what to put back on the shelf. By refusing to buy into the clichéd portrayals of mental health that media producers keep putting out, we can lead the media to start creating content that we do want to see. Consumers are tired of all of these old clichés and more importantly these stereotypes that seem so entrenched in the media are actually hurting people. People are afraid to come forward with their concerns and are therefore significantly compromising their health with sometimes tragic results.

The MDABC and similar agencies are working hard to educate the public and increase awareness of mental health because we see first-hand how stigma harms individuals, families and communities. I hope that you will join us in our fight against stigma and negative stereotyping by looking critically at the messages about mental health that the media is feeding us. If you are watching a show with some friends or family and you see something that just doesn’t sit right, why not point it out and get a conversation going? If you see articles on-line that are perpetuating stereotypes, write a comment that will help people to re-examine their assumptions. And lastly, seek out books and movies, and articles that portray people with mental health realistically and empathetically and share widely!

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