Mental illness awareness week: Accurate vs. inaccurate media portrayals of mental illness

The power of the media and its effects on people’s perception of mental health issues can be powerful. News outlets, magazines and social media cover stories that shape the public perspective on trending issues and events, some related to mental health.

When an act of violence occurs, mental illness and gun control typically enter the forefront of political debate. North Carolina State University, RTI International, the University of California, Davis, Simon Fraser University and Duke University Research contributed to a 2014 study that revealed mentally ill people are actually the subjects of violence more often than they are the perpetrators.

In the Psych Central article “Media’s Damaging Depictions of Mental Illness,” Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, discusses popular myths of the mentally ill that are supported by inaccurate media portrayals. She brings up the popular television series “Monk” as a testament to how the media turns mental illness into a comedic, unsolvable problem. The lead actor in “Monk,” Tony Shaloub, plays a character who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. The condition is portrayed as severe and debilitating, never improving over the course of the series. This lack of progress could give the impression that a person with a mental health condition may not be able to recover.

On the brighter side, Bill Lichtenstein, founder and director of Lichtenstein Creative Media, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder years ago. Four years went by before he met another person with bipolar disorder because the condition was simply not talked about. As a result, following treatment for his condition, Lichtenstein produced Voices of an Illness, a Peabody award-winning radio documentary series featuring 11 people with schizophrenia telling their stories in their own words.

The participants included a doctor, a writer and a teacher. Clinicians, medical researchers and mental health advocates explain the disease that affects 1 in 100 people and how they are able to significantly improve due to “second generation” medications. The National Alliance on Mental Illness’s number was announced and the organization received 10,000 calls a day.

Glasgow Media Group reports that positive portrayals of mental health disorders are changing public attitudes. In early 2015, soaps, dramas and sitcoms were studied for a three-month period. Researchers found portrayals of mental illness to be generally positive. Actors with fictional mental health disorders were shown as living more normally and there were fewer links between mental illness and violence.

A survey of 2,004 people revealed that 54 percent of viewers adopted a new perspective on mental illness after watching the television shows. Almost 50 percent of those surveyed changed their opinion about who may be susceptible to mental illness. Thirty-one percent were inspired to speak with loved ones regarding mental health.

Speaking to The Guardian, Peter Moffat, BAFTA award winner and screenwriter of the movie “Silk,” too many documentaries are made expecting an audience to laugh at people with mental health problems. He noted that writers have a responsibility to fight stereotyping and produce characters that are engaging and have some dimension.

As people become more educated about mental illness and realize there is nothing to fear, the stigma will hopefully disappear. If you have questions or need information about mental illness or its treatment, please call the 24/7 Mental Health Helpline at any time.