Media usually has a strong pull on popular opinion and norm. It also works towards establishing and maintaining stereotypes about race, gender and mental health. One, of the many other reasons, that mental health is stigmatized is due to how it is portrayed in movies, TV shows and sometimes the news. It can be said that not all of these mediums get mental disorders wrong but they do tend to lean towards ‘sugar coating’ the person’s symptoms and process, or giving them a ‘quick fix’ narrative where the person with a mental health disorder gets ‘cured’ or ‘fixed’
Examples of sugar coating the narrative is A Beautiful Mind where a mathematician’s hallucinations not only become personified, they are given a happy ending where the protagonist makes peace with them. They do not show the mentally arduous process of making peace with their mental disorder, as well as the self-acceptance. A person can make peace with the symptoms yet it is not a linear process nor is it set in stone. Mental disorders are like waves, they fluctuate, and some days they’re mild and other’s they can drown you.
As for ‘fixing’/’curing’ a person with a mental disorder, Silver Linings Playbook focuses on the symptoms and does almost accurately portray what is like to have bipolar disorder. However, it emphasizes how a relationship can make your bipolar symptoms lessen or even disappear. Support from a loved one is important when working through mental disorders but it does not cure or lessen the symptoms. Wellness and recovery comes from the person with the mental disorder; it is through their decision and effort that they get better not the skewed idea that people with mental illnesses ONLY need love to get better.
The media tends to tie violence to mental disorders which casts a bigger shadow on the already taboo theme. Even though mental disorders are rooted in disordered behaviors and thoughts, most of the people with the mental disorders are not violent. And for those who do have violent tendencies their behavior can be modified with the appropriate care and therapy. Please refer to this Fact Sheet for more information on mental disorders and violence.
With the media there is no middle point for a person with a mental disorder. They are either in need of intensive love, which ultimately cures their illness or they are raging murderers that a hell bent on wiping out all around them.
The other side of the coin for how wrongfully mental disorders are portrayed is focused on the therapist or psychiatrist. The media plays up the role of the male therapist as the all-knowing figure that knows exactly what the client needs. This implies, and creates the wrongful assumption, that therapists know all the answers and all clients need to do is show up and do as they are told. This takes away the agency the client has in real therapy and forces the therapist to work harder than the client; and assumption that is wrong yet very widely believed. In other times therapist is portrayed as a joke or a buffoon. This type of portrayal invalidates the power of therapy and perpetuates the stigma that only crazy people need therapy. Finally, in cases where the therapist is female, they are portrayed as self-reserved women who are repressed and are waiting to find the right mental client to fall in love with. This is problematic in many levels. The first being that it is sexist and perpetuates the idea that women are emotionally set on finding love and can only be validated through a relationship. Second, a therapist does not fall in love with their clients. Not only because it is against all ethical rules but also because a therapist’s role is to support and explore a client’s life. I invite you to read Roger Dobson’s article The bad, sad and crazy movies that mock mental illness, as well as Jules Suzdaltev’s interview with Dr. Danny Wedding, How Good Is Hollywood at Portraying Mental Illness?.
The way media portrays mental disorders is problematic in more levels that I can ever write about in this post. It is for this reason that it is important to be critical about the information that we take in to ourselves and the information we offer the world. When in doubt look up more information. You don’t know about something, ask an expert. Never take what is said as the end all be all; including this post. Stay informed. Stay empathetic. Stay open minded.
Here are other articles that touch on these topics:
- Stigma Continues in Hollywood
- How Mental Illness is Misrepresented in the Media
- Media’s Damaging Depictions of Mental Illness
- Mental Illness on the Silver Screen