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The Misrepresentation of Mental Illness in the Media

Efforts made to destigmatize mental illness provide people with the ability to talk about them freely, and help each other to cope with them. However, the road to de-stigmatization has led to sensationalization, as different types of media fueled romanticization and inaccurate portrayals of mental illness.

Image Credit: Fernando

In TV shows and movies, mentally ill individuals are represented as incompetent, dangerous, slovenly, undeserving people. Characters who are identified as having a mental illness are typically shown as violent. This furthers the belief that mentally ill people are devoid of social identity, dangerous, capricious, aggressive and irrational.

Similarly, TV shows and movies generally support the stereotype that people with mental illness look different from others. Maybe it’s the disheveled hair. Maybe it’s the rumpled clothes. Maybe it’s the wild eyes. Whatever it is, there is usually something “different” about the appearances of people with mental illnesses. These traits serve as visual signifiers to such characters, who are often threatening.

Additionally, mental illnesses are frequently the punchline of jokes in TV shows and movies, misrepresenting the reality of living with a mental illness. For example, Me, Myself and Irene-- starring Jim Carrey as a patient with dissociative identity disorder-- or Monk-- the show about a detective with obsessive-compulsive disorder-- make light of mental illnesses. They portray otherwise serious psychological conditions as mere quirks, or those who have them as silly, funny and childlike.

To make matters worse, recovery is seldom shown in the media. When people are shown seeking therapy and going to psychiatric hospitals, they rarely get better. And if they do get better, it is enough that they are stabilized, but not enough so that they’re integrated with the world, and have friends and jobs. The resulting message is that individuals with mental illnesses have no hope for a “normal” life. While filmmakers are to blame for thriving off negative stereotypes of mental illnesses, some part of the blame goes to the viewers for glorifying mental illness.

Many popular shows such as Skins and Euphoria have been turned into an aesthetic when, in reality, they depict real-life dangerous struggles. This romanticization promotes a sensationalized environment that can be harmful and lead people into disordered behaviors. The show Skins presents a girl who suffers from an extreme eating disorder along with other abusive relationships that have been romanticized all over social media outlets. Effy Stonem is only one of the many characters whose illness is glorified by viewers.

Social media is an amazing platform for young people to express themselves and connect with others, but it has also become a breeding ground for romanticizing mental illnesses. Social media created an individuality complex that leads people to believe that you need something that will set you apart. Especially amongst teens, having a mental illness can function as this separation. Being depressed, experiencing anxiety, and having personality disorders are seen by some as being unique and cool.

Furthermore, actual symptoms and behaviors of mental illnesses are rarely mentioned and, when they are, people call it disgusting. Depression is romanticized until people exhibit not being able to shower, get up in the morning, or brush their teeth. This discourages those who have been diagnosed with depression from educating others.

The first step to de-romanticizing and de-stigmatizing mental illnesses is to bring a proper portrayal of mental illnesses into the media. This means having proper information and representation in the media. Bringing awareness to mental illnesses while not portraying a glamorized version of them can change the way they are perceived.


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