Through the Media’s Eyes

I feel that the primary reason that there is a stigma against mental illness is because of the way it is portrayed in the media. People believe what they see on TV or read on the internet. Especially in regards to things that they have no experience with. I am not blaming the consumers here. I’d love it if everyone would go get themselves educated on what mental illness really is, but that isn’t going to happen and really doesn’t need to. I am, however, blaming the media, in part. I don’t feel that the media is completely responsible for shaping popular opinions. TV shows and movies are about telling a good story and that often has nothing to do with reality. It is not the media’s responsibility to make sure that people don’t believe in vampires, were wolves and unicorns. In the same way, it is not their responsibility to make sure people don’t believe that mental illness is a synonym with violence or helplessness.

And some sad data:

Only 25% of adults with mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness.

-CDC

The only media that I blame and that makes me angry is the news. This advertises itself as being unbiased and factual. But, in truth, it is just as bad as the fictional movies and TV shows. It rarely gives accurate or positive information regarding mental illness or the treatment process.

That leaves the question: What can be done about the stigma?

Advocate.

Educate.

Relate.

Advocating is about making sure that people who have mental illness get the services they need and are being treated with respect. I think that those of us that have mental illness have to put forward our voices in regards to this. We have to stop accepting people being disrespectful to us and call them on their bad behaviors. Some of us cannot do this, but those of us that can, need to!

Educating is about getting information out there to the people who are looking for accurate and insightful data. When people search for bipolar disorder on the internet, there should be more links leading to accurate information than links that lead to crap and myths. I think that we’ve made progress in that regard. But it is also about talking to the people in our lives about what our disorder is and is not for us as an individual. Those of us that have mental illness need to talk about what it is like to have mental illness. Personal stories are much more relatable then a list of facts or statistics.

Relating is about engaging with people AS PEOPLE. I think that there are several components to this. The first is how parents raise their children. The second is how we consume the media. Lastly, is open-mindedness. I think all three start with how we raise our children. If we can raise children with a sense of empathy and sympathy then the largest battle against stigma will be won. Most of the power behind stigma is people choosing not to see other people as PEOPLE. I am a person. I have mental illness, but I am still a person. Treat me that way. When we consume media, we need to understand that it cannot be taken at face value. If it was, everyone would believe there are sparkling vampires running around. And I already talked about education, but in regards to relating I’ll add this one point: people with out mental illness have a difficult time understanding and thus relating to those who do have mental illness. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. It is just difficult to understand something that you’ve never experienced.

There is nothing that I can do about the media and what they decide to put on TV other than the effort I am already making in not consuming crap on TV (of any variety). I am trying to help with the stigma by putting out information that is accurate and insightful about mental illness. I’m hoping that a few people will read things posted on my blog and will have a bit of the stigma erased from their mind. Even if I could do that with one person, I would feel I have accomplished something good here. I believe in the butterfly effect and I hope I have made a ripple here.

Overcoming the stigma associated with mental illness, seeking and getting treatment, and being part of a support network enables people living with mental illness to reclaim their lives and  enjoy meaningful careers.
-Lisa Laco (CBC radio host)

People love watching movies. Unfortunately, most movies have inaccurate and negative portrayals of mental illness. Those that have a positive outlook usually still have inaccurate information. It is difficult for people to sort through this to get down to what is real. The homicidal maniac is probably the most damning and is all too often a central character in horror and slasher films (Hannibal, American Psycho and Seven). This isn’t to say that I think these movies are bad. I actually enjoyed all three examples I gave. But I went into it understanding that the villains were as realistic as vampires or were wolves. Most people don’t have that perspective when watching those films and walk away believing that is what mental illness looks like.

However, there are a few movies that truly offered an insightful portrayal of mental illness: Ordinary People and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Great films. I recommend them. There are also some shows that are honest (but I think some are also exploitive): Hoarders, 20/20 and there are several that had a sprinkling of good episodes as well. There are a bunch of really great documentaries out there: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, OCD: The War Inside, Child of Rage and A is for Autism (to name a few, but there are so many others!). There are also some great anime that portray characters with mental illness in a realistic way: Naruto in the show Naruto is a very good and positive portrayal of someone with ADHD.

People who have mental illness have the same needs as everyone else.
Pat Morris (Nurse and Teacher)

The last thing that I want to point out is that mental health providers also get a bad reputation from the media. Who would want to go to a psychiatric hospital after watching all the movies that have the creepy asylum as a setting? And how many times has a show or movie portrayed the psychiatrist as the bad guy; exploiting or manipulating their patients (or worse)? And reality TV shows haven’t helped. Some providers are exploiting people: Dr. Phil and the providers in Hoarders. I promise that most of us providers are not bad people. But like every other group of people, there are jerks and pricks within our ranks.

Some great web sites:
With an Open Mind
The Media and Mental Illness
Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness
Mental Illness Stigma
Mental Illness is no Myth

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