How the Media Portrays Mental Illness

Updated on January 5, 2018

While some forms of media get it right, some get it all-out-wrong. Mental illness portrayed negatively in the media can evoke stigma and deter people from seeking treatment. In these controversial times, I think it is important for us who are frustrated to remind ourselves that most of "the media's job is entertainment, not education."

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Stigma Around Mental Illness

According to Dr. Graham C.L. Davey on Psychology Today, there are two distinct types of mental health stigmas:

1. Social Stigma is characterized by prejudicial attitudes and discriminating behavior directed towards individuals with mental health problems as a result of the psychiatric label they have been given.

2. Perceived or Self-Stigma is the internalizing by the mental health sufferer of their perceptions of discrimination. How a mentally ill individual interprets stigma can lead to feelings of shame and the lack of desire to seek treatment.

Examples of Stigma Toward Mental Illness

  • Weak
  • Crazy
  • Psychotic
  • Imbalanced
  • Unintelligent
  • Slow
  • Dangerous
  • To be feared
  • Harmful to others and society
  • Abnormal physical appearance

"Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but bias and stigma shame us all."

— Bill Clinton

How Does Media Evoke Stigma?

As explained previously, the primary job of most media is to entertain or provide information to the public. Some sources, like the news for example, are sources we depend on for truly reliable information. On the other hand, the content we see in movies and on television are often created to solely entertain, not to teach or provide accurate information.

Some of us can differentiate between what is fact and what is fiction. However, these entertaining media sources have become a way for those who know little about mental illness to judge and ostracize those suffering from it. Kirstin Fawcett explains, "Studies indicate that mass media is one of the public’s primary sources of information about disorders such as bipolar, schizophrenia and depression."

Mental Illness in Film

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest both a novel and a 1975 film, is a great example of how easily influenced society can be to label an individual as "crazy". In the film, a criminal pleads insanity to avoid his prison sentence. Throughout the film he pretends to act mentally ill to convince the psychiatric ward's staff that he is indeed insane. Convinced that he is harmful to others and society, the staff perform electric shock therapy although unaware he was an entirely mentally stable man. I think this film shows how quick society as a whole deems mental illness as a threat and can be punishable. See trailer below:


The 2017 film Split by M. Night Shyamalan tells the story of a man named Kevin with multiple personalities, also known as dissociative identity disorder (DID). A horror, directed to scare and entertain, portrays the main character as a weak individual who relies on his 24 personalities to protect him and become something greater. His personalities come together to create "The Beast", a superhuman alter who feeds off the blood of two impure teenage girls. This CNN article argues that, "Mental health advocates warn that the film stigmatizes dissociative identity disorder and may directly impact those living with it".

Kevin Wendell Crumb houses 24 different personalities, including the terrifying "Beast"
Kevin Wendell Crumb houses 24 different personalities, including the terrifying "Beast" | Source

As a brief note, I want to comment on how baffling it is that these movies created 42 years apart are both categorized as portraying mental health stigma. That is a long period of time to see little change in the sensitivity towards the mentally ill population. Other media such as television shows contribute to public stigma as well.

Mental Illness in Television

'Bates Motel' (2013-2017) is a 5 season television series based on the 1960 film Psycho. The story line revolves around Norma Bates and her son Norman packing up their lives and moving to White Pine Bay, Oregon. Here, they move into a house on a large hill next to their new family run business, Bates Motel. The series uncovers Norman's schizophrenic tendencies and dissociative identity disorder through his many episodes of "becoming" his mother. His alter ego as his mother urges him to kill others. Again, although the character was designed for entertainment and scares, his mental illness is linked to murder, violence, and danger.

Norman Bates from Bates Motel (pictured left), Norman Bates from Psycho (pictured right)
Norman Bates from Bates Motel (pictured left), Norman Bates from Psycho (pictured right) | Source

To steer away from horror, I would finally like to discuss the 2017 Netflix original series '13 Reasons Why' based on Jay Asher's 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why. This show intended on raising suicide awareness for mature audiences. However, its graphic content and lack of trigger warnings have caused it to receive a lot of back lash and controversy. The show is about a high schooler named Hannah Baker who commits suicide. She leaves behind 13 reasons why she did so in the form of cassette tapes - each tape belonging to one individual whom she felt led her to suicide. Business Insider explains that many concerned parents, teachers, and mental health experts feel that the intentions to discuss an important matter were there, but the ways it was executed are dangerous and glorify suicide.

Hannah Baker from '13 Reasons Why'
Hannah Baker from '13 Reasons Why' | Source

"Unless you majored in psychology or attended medical school, chances are the bulk of your knowledge about mental illness comes from the newspapers you read, the television shows you watch and the movies you see."

— Kirstin Fawcett

Why is This a Problem?

I personally have seen both films and both television series discussed in this article. Being a psychology major myself, I not only have been educated on these disorders being portrayed on screen, but I can differentiate between what is accurate and what is ridiculous or offensive.

The real problem is that most members of society cannot. Many fear what they do not understand or what is abnormal. The connections between those with mental illness and their actions portrayed in media are instilling fear and misunderstanding in many.

How Do I Help Put an End to Stereotypes?

Learn the facts from reputable sources and do your best to educate others. In the article "The Media and Mental Illness: The Good, the Bad, and the Ridiculous", Howes suggests that we "take the media with a grain of salt". The realities we see on movies and TV are meant to be dramatized and over the top - tactics they use to keep the viewers watching. Its being able to know there is a difference that will lead us one step closer to ending the stigma against mental illness.


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