By: Ronald Leung
What’s the first thought that pops into your mind when someone mentions “mental illness”? A balding creature cackling to himself about his precious, an eerily-calm psychiatrist with a cannibalistic streak, or leather-faced chainsaw-wielding inbreds? These images come from the media that surrounds us and, as unfortunate as this result, is where we get most of our perceptions – quite often subconsciously. We see something on our screen or in our pages and it marinates in our mind before it becomes a part of what we see and how we think. It’s not surprising that media portrayals of mental illness are not only false but also excessively negative. It’s difficult not to whip up the drama and details of the most gruesome murder of the year – that’s how you get more viewership. What’s worse is that news stories rarely ever contain the opinion of a person with a mental illness. It’s often only law enforcement or a health professional speaking on behalf of them, which leads to the perception that people with mental illness are unable of developing opinions or speaking on their own behalf.
Mental illness is often used as a weapon in the entertainment industry. It’s quite sad that a true and devastating sickness can be battered and manipulated into becoming not only a social stigma, but a grotesque or villainous character. A recent study showed that 72.1% of adult characters on television who were depicted as mentally ill, injured or killed others. In general, characters that were mentally ill were 10 times more violent than their co-stars. It’s not surprising that the reality is completely different. The majority of crime, about 95-97%, is committed by people with no mental illness. This huge difference between fiction and fact is feeding the negative rap that mental illness receives.
Not only is the problem located in the frequency that mental illness is displayed in the media, but also the method of portrayal. The most common stereotypical depictions of people with mental illnesses are rebellious free spirit, violent seductress, narcissistic parasite, mad scientist, sly manipulator, helpless/depressed female and comedic relief. The problem here is that these characters often have no identity outside of their “crazy” behavior – their mental illness becomes their one and only label. It becomes the point where the mental illness is the character’s main personality traits and the illness is the only way that character can be possibly defined.
There is also the tendency to automatically associate mental illness with simple-mindedness. In prime-time TV drama, more than 43% of mentally ill characters did not understand everyday adult roles and were often portrayed as lost and confused. These characters also spoke in very simple terms and grammar, and were also often shown to be helpless and dishevelled. Almost always they were poor and homeless in addition to being held by police for crimes that had little understanding or remembrance about.
The reality is that mental illness can strike anywhere and anyone – whether you are a student, professional, or retiree. However, the media depicts mental illness as something separate from general society. People who are mentally ill are often shown to be unemployed without family, friends or unrelated personal history. Mental illness does not discriminate against class, age, or popularity. The continued depiction of people with mental illnesses as separate from general society is just a continuation in describing them as almost subhuman. The fact that homelessness is commonly associated with mental illness perpetuates the impression that people with mental illness are dependent on others or that mental illness causes homelessness, especially since a discussion of the broader systemic issues that lead to homelessness is lacking. This view contributes to the picture that individuals with a psychiatric diagnosis are incapable of being productive members of society.
Not only is the perception of individuals who are mentally ill warped and twisted but the depiction of treatments and patient facilities is also often untrue. How many movies have you seen with the cold empty asylums filled with screaming patients and nurses wearing white starch-stiff uniforms? The inaccurate and unflattering stereotypes of the psychiatric profession misinforms the public and undermines the credibility of mental health care practitioners. In the media, mental health professionals were often show to be neurotic, ineffectual, mentally ill themselves, comically inept, self-absorbed, drug-addicted, foolish or outright idiotic. These portrayals reinforce the idea that helping others requires little skill or expertise. It’s not surprising that less than 33% of mentally ill patients in Canada seek professional health – depictions of mentally health practitioners as exploitative and mentally unstable do irreparable harm to people who are already hesitant to seek treatment.
Mental illness is not a violent death sentence, nor is it an outlier that only occurs to the homeless and people on the fringe of society. It is a common occurrence that is nothing to be ashamed of – despite what the media thinks. Ignoring the elephant in the room will not make it go away. Only by admitting to it will any true change happen.