How Mass Media Perpetuates the Stigmatization of Mental Illness

Photo by Pinho . on Unsplash
Photo by Pinho . on Unsplash

We Can’t Escape! Media has become an inescapable part of life and with so much influxin the way we consume it, it’s hard not to realize when we’re being sucked into the fantasy. Case in point mental illness. It’s no surprise that more often than not, the media’s portrayal of mental illness is completely wrong, extremely exaggerated, or stereotypical. But why does this matter? Well, the simple answer is that it matters because media is often how we consume information. This means that most people who don’t have a degree or background in mental health/psychology will most likely develop their understanding of mental illness from the t.v shows, movies, radio, and other media outlets they consume. This isn’t only concerning, but also dangerous.

When our understanding of something as complex as mental illness is distorted to entertain, explained from outdated/misinformation, or downright discriminatory then we have a problem. This is because this information leads to stigma. To put it in perspective a study conducted in 2012 about the media portrayal of mental illness and its treatment stated that, “The consequences of negative media images for people who have a mental illness are profound. They impair self-esteem, help-seeking behaviors, medication adherence, and overall recovery.” [1]. Much of the research has found that media continuously categorizes and portrays individuals with mental illness into negative and detrimental fictional representations. This creates a great deal of shame for people who may want to get help, but feel that they will be seen in a negative way. Below I will highlight a few more ways in which media contributes to the stigmatization of people with mental illness.


People With Mental Illness Are Dangerous

How many times have you sat to watch a movie, tv show, or watch the news when you begin to hear about or watch a “crazed”, “wacky”, “quirky”, “not all there” character and automatically assume they are a threat? This is because more so than not the media portrays people with mental illness as dangerous, unpredictable, and violent. A professor and chair of communications at the University of North Carolina-Asheville made the following discovery when analyzing portrayals of individuals with mental illness on prime-time television, “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.” Yet, the reality is that individuals with mental illness are actually victimized at higher rates in real life than the media’s false portrayal of the opposite.

Another example is the news. Nothing catches our attention like a blown up caricature of mental illness. See the purpose of the news is not always to inform you, but rather to get you to buy into the stories being told. This does not mean in any way that all news is false, it simply means that the news is a business meant to get views and nothing sells better than entertainment. So what do we end up with? News stories that perpetuate the idea that mental illness is universal for depraved, dangerous, and violent [2]. These stereotypes seep into the outrages headlines often seen in the news such as, “1,200 Killed by mental patients” which was published by a British newspaper, The Sun in 2013 only to be edited to include more accurate facts about mentally ill people’s victimization. [3]. Words are powerful, there is no denying that when it comes to using terms to describe mental illness, the media often gets it wrong. Headlines including words like “monster” or phrases like “battling demons” often give the perception that individuals suffering from mental illness are “evil” and not human. This is deeply concerning as the media continuously feeds the implication that people with mental illness are subhuman by demonizing them [4].

“Yet, the reality is that individuals with mental illness are actually victimized at higher rates in real life than the media’s false portrayal of the opposite.”


Mental Illness Is All the Same

Recently, we have seen a rise in higher quality depictions of people dealing with mental illness in award-winning films like the Silver Linings Playbook. Yet, even with this increase in more accurate portrayals, the majority of media is still catching up. This is evident in the way the media universally depicts someone with mental illness. There is often no differentiation or indication of the actual diverse range of mental health challenges. Instead, we are left with a one size fits all. The same symptoms, similar characteristics, and stereotypical demeanor. These often tend to be based on individuals who are dealing with psychosis(hallucinations, delusions, talking incoherently, and agitation) [5].

Did you know that in reality the majority of diagnosis’s made in the U.S are depression and anxiety? What’s even more surprising is that the rates of depression are on the rise, especially in adolescents. So why is this not represented? One possible answer might be that that mass media realizes that more intensified depictions of mental illness sell. After all, their purpose is to make money. But how does this impact us as a society? Well for one it creates fear, it leaves us assuming that all people with mental illness are on the extreme cases spectrum, and it continues to feed the stigma of mental illness. This stigma has been pointed out by the most reputable professionals as a major reason why people do not seek help and why many people chose to suffer in silence for fear of rejection or reprimand.

“The Majority of Diagnoses Made in the U.S Are  for Depression & Anxiety”


Mental Illness is a Life Sentence

 Another misconception that the mass media perpetuates is the idea that people who struggle with mental illness cannot heal or recover. This cannot be further from the truth. In fact, many people who struggle with mental illness are able to live happy and fulfilling lives with quality support [6]. Most media, however, chooses to show the darker side and often gives the interpretation that mental illness causes weakness and there is no recovery. It may seem that these messages are not important, but the fact is that the media has an influence on society. When these messages focus on the hopelessness of recovery they elicit ambivalent attitudes towards the need for mental health reform and resources. This is because people may figure that there is no point in allocating resources to something that will not work. In this way, the media has a powerful level of influence on the social response to important and highly critical decisions.

These are just a few examples of how the media historically and currently continues to reinforce stigma through stereotypes, misinformation, and through the use of troublesome language. Of course, we can simply blame the media and there are tons of research papers out there that already do so. But what about the bigger question of “how can we turn this around and use the media to support and create a positive influence on the portrayal of mental illness?” This is a question that is a lot more difficult to answer because it requires a substantial amount of reform and re-evaluation of media. Yet, its possible and change isoccurring slowly. Major press agencies within that last few years have begun to train and provide guidelines on how journalist report stories involving mental illness. We are watching a lot more celebrities come out and talk about their struggles with mental illness as well as technology playing a role in how we access mental health services through apps like “BetterHelp”. Mental health professionals are also discovering new ways to utilize media, technology, and social media to create platforms. Change takes time and doesn’t come without a few bumps in the road. As with any movement, however, momentum is key and it has definitely been building up in the last 10 years. With depression rates growing around the world each year, it is no longer realistic to ignore the need for a societal level degree of change.

What do you think? Do you agree, disagree or do you have another way the media contributes to stigma? Let us know in the comment section!








Cover Photo by Pinho . on Unsplash

Photos From Unsplash

Photo by on Unsplash

Luis is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist who graduated from Long Beach State University with a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology (2015). He also has a Bachelors's degree in Child and Adolescent Development with an emphasis on Public Policy from San Francisco State University (2011). Luis has over 9 years of experience working with children and families both in education and mental health. Previously, Luis worked for a non-profit agency in San Francisco, CA providing mental health consultation in early head start programs and SFUSD pre-schools. Currently, Luis works at Kaiser in San Francisco providing mental health services.

His therapeutic interests include working with Trauma, the LGBTQ community, Children, Families, Couples, and POC. His personal interests include; Films, Reading, Writing, Art, Travelling, Disney, and Food. He is also a recipient of the California State Stipend award (2015). PsychoSocial is part of Luis' dedication to mental health and an example of his passion to educate others. Luis hopes that through PsychoSocial he will be able to help in the fight to end the stigma around mental illness.​​



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