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The Media’s Portrayal of Mental Illness

Recent studies have consistently shown that distorted and exaggerated images of mental illnesses are presented in the media, leading to negative emotions being modelled, like fear and ridicule. The consequences of these portrayals are profound. They impair self-esteem, help-seeking behaviour, medication adherence and overall recovery of those living with mental illnesses.

However, the media can also prove to be beneficial as it can initiate public debate, challenge public prejudices and project positive stories. By taking advantage of these methods, mental health professionals are able to provide easily-accessible public education about topics that aren’t spoken about much in schools, correcting misconceptions.

The media should be used to move towards improving recovery possibilities and to educate the general public about mental illnesses with the methods mentioned in our previous articles, and as a result, move away from further stereotyping mental illnesses with negative representations.

Let’s explore why the media is harmful to the image of mental health and what can - and should - be done to solve this issue!

How the Media Can Be Harmful

- Stigmatization of mental illnesses

Stigmatization can be seen when certain mental health conditions (e.g. schizophrenia) are shown to be so disruptive to society that people living with them must be isolated. This increases discrimination and prejudice, creating unjust and unecessary segregations towards them, which were driven by distortions to begin with.

- Overgeneralisation of mental illnesses

Overgeneralization leads to the impression that everyone with the same mental illness must display the same symptoms and characteristics. For example, it is widely believed that everyone with depression must be suicidal when this is far from the truth. This is problematic as it creates feelings of misunderstanding in people with mental illnesses.

- Disclosure of mental illnesses

Portrayals in the media often present situations where everyone in a character’s life knows about their mental illness. The general public then makes assumptions that a person does not have mental illness(es), causing insensitive comments or remarks to be thrown around without the intention to be hurtful to end up hurting the person’s feelings.

- Portrayal that mental illnesses are untreatable

Stories with mental illnesses often end with bad endings; an example would be 13 Reasons Why, in which the protagonist is lost to suicide after experiencing depression. This wrongly shows that mental illnesses are untreatable and would likely end badly, driving people away from seeking help.

- Trivialisation of mental illness

Mental illnesses are often downplayed or exaggerated. An example would be the portrayal of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). A person with OCD is often portrayed as being overly concerned with cleanliness and perfectionism. However, the media often overlooks the obsessive thoughts that drive their compulsions.

The symptoms of mental illnesses are also sometimes portrayed as beneficial, putting them in a favourable light. This glosses over the struggles OCD patients face, making it seem desirable almost, making the impression of it completely faulty.

How The Media Can Be Beneficial

- Humanisation of mental health

The media has the ability to feature real stories about people who are struggling with mental health and allows people to feel that they are not alone in their struggles. It also has the potential to help the general public realise that mental illnesses are real, common, and treatable.

- Encouragement

The media can emphasize the importance of early recognition and treatment of mental illness. This, with the increased media coverage and therefore awareness about mental health services, can encourage those who are suffering with mental illness not to seek help as soon as possible.

- Offering hope

By highlighting interviews of recovered patients and their well-being, the media can offer hope to those suffering from mental illness that recovery is possible and necessary.

How The Media Could Be Beneficial

- Presenting the right ideas

The media should highlight the complexity of mental disorders using the knowledge of professional and reliable sources, emphasizing that mental illnesses cover a wide range of symptoms, conditions, and effects on people’s lives, of which most will improve with treatment. This equips the general public with the right knowledge.

- Using appropriate terms

Effort should also be made to use appropriate terms in order to de-stigmatize mental illnesses. Negative terms like “psycho” or “disturbed” should be avoided as it perpetuates discrimination. Instead, they should be replaced with “person experiencing psychosis” as this does not have negative connotations. “Mental illness” should also not be used as an aggregate term and should be replaced with “a mental illness” or “mental illnesses”.

- Correctly referring to people with mental illnesses

The media should also stress to never refer to a person as “an alcoholic” or “a schizophrenic”. The mental illnesses do not define who they are as people; thus, they should be referred to as “having a diagnosis of”, “currently experiencing”, or “are being treated for the disorder”.

- Correctly referring to medication

Medication should also be correctly indicated by the media. Terms such as “happy pills” for antidepressants and “shrinks” for psychiatrists are incorrect representations as they trivialise the illnesses and may discourage patients from receiving treatment by medication.


Researcher: Charissa Lim, Editor: Sylvia Yip, Editor + Thumbnail + Text Transcription: Megan Kwok


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