The stigma of mental illness in the media

Mental illness is an extremely important yet sensitive issue that should be treated and discussed in a responsible and compassionate manner. In recent years, many attempts have been made by a variety of television shows to discuss mental disorders such as depression and anxiety among others. When these disorders are portrayed well, it can be cathartic for the viewers, particularly those who struggle with similar problems and are finally able to see that they aren’t alone. However, when individuals with mental disorders are portrayed to be outcasts, dangerous to society and “abnormal”, stereotypes are formed and a negative stigma is perpetuated. 

With the average U.S adult watching around 4 hours of cable television a day, as well as more than 150 million users subscribed to popular streaming services such as Netflix, it is suggested that electronic media can easily influence the stigma surrounding mental health. While one may think that audiences are able to tell when something is emphasized for the sake of entertainment, cultivation theory proposes that people who spend a lot of time watching television are more likely to assume a television worldview of mental illness, especially if the viewer has no previous experience of interacting with someone with mental disorders. Social learning theory suggests that television teaches/reinforces social conventions of how to treat people with mental illness. Considering many shows portray mental illness in an exaggerated, unrealistic or insensitive way, it can be seen that the opinions of regular television watchers on individuals with mental illness will eventually be influenced by electronic media. 

Mental health counselors have long been aware of the negative effects of social stigma on those with mental disorders. While those with mental illness suffer from the harmful effects of the disorder itself, society’s reaction to the disease has equally harmful impacts on the individual’s self-esteem. Negative stereotypes of a disorder can also lead to discrimination in housing, employment and social interactions (Corrigan, 1998), and the Institute of Mental Health has also reported that stigma is one of the biggest handicap faced by those with mental disorders.

Media producers, especially those who focus on everyday life and people, should carefully take into consideration the way they want to portray mental illness in their content. For example, proper research should be made about the nature of the disease itself, and they should also note that not all people with mental disorders showcase the most “extreme” aspects of their said disorder. To portray realistic, accurate experiences, producers could also speak to individuals who have experience with a mental disorder. 

What can we, as consumers of these pieces of content, do to help combat the stigma? Simple things such as watching and supporting media that does portray mental disorders in an accurate light can help others recognize that not all hope is lost, and sets a good bar of what is considered good representation. For example, the Netflix show Bojack Horseman, shows that the struggle with mental health is not a direct, obstacle-free path, and that relapse into old habits is very much plausible. By educating ourselves on topics of mental disorder and listening to the voices of people who struggle with them, we can attempt to unlearn negative stereotypes that we may have learnt from the media and combat the stigma surrounding mental health and illness.


Statistics on Television and Health  

What is Cultivation Theory?

What is Social Learning Theory?