The Portrayal of Mental Illness in the Media

“What is the natural reaction when told you have a hopeless mental illness? That diagnosis does you in; that, and the humiliation of being there. I mean the indignity you’re subjected to. My God.” Said Kate Millett[1], a writer and artist, who was referring to the indignity and humiliation one gets into once they’re being diagnosed with a mental illness. This humiliation is possibly because of the frequent, negative, stereotypical portrayal of mental patients in the media. Diagnosis as referred to by Millet, can put patients in disgrace and fear not only because of the stigmatized portrayals of the mentally ill but also because of how psychiatric treatments are portrayed in media.

On- screen portrayals of the mentally ill is very frequent
Media portrayals of the mentally ill individuals are very frequent and potent. It is positive that the media is aware of those individuals who are mentally unstable to an extent that the abundance of their portrayals can and in fact has become representative of those patients. A research has been conducted examining prime time television programs in the US and results have shown that one-fifth of the programmes represent features of mental illnesses and 2-3 % of the adults are shown as having mental health problems (Stuart, 2006)[2]. There were also frequent portrayals of mental illness found in children’s movies. A research done in New Zealand proves that half the children (below the age of 10) programmes contain at least one reference to mental illness (Stuart, 2006)[2]. Stereotypical images are also found in Disney animated films. Percentages reveal that referring to mental illnesses verbally was 85% and 21% of the characters are referred to as mentally ill (Stuart, 2006)[2]. A week rarely passes by without a reference to mental illness globally. (Cutcliffe and Hannigan, 2001)[3]

The Negative stereotypes of the mentally ill in the media
Despite the awareness that is signified through media, their portrayals of mental illness are overwhelmingly negative and distorted. “Movies destroy the idea that mental patients are normal people that can recover and become productive members of the society” (Stuart, 2006, pp.100)[2]. This idea is induced when the symptoms of a mental illness are being presented alone as if this is the character’s personality; the illness becomes the only way of defining that person (Edney, 2004)[4]. Wilson et al.(1999) [5] emphasizes that person becomes defined by the illness in totality, thus being discriminated from others. Mentally ill patients are more violent than normal people. This is the idea that media has been reinforcing over and over. Analysis of the content of movies concludes that the characters whom were labeled as mentally ill were 10 times more violent than the other characters, and based on a two-week programming sample, mental patients are depicted as 10 to 20 times more violent compared to real life psychiatric diagnoses in the U.S. population within an entire year. Moreover, one in four mental characters appears as committing either suicide or crime. (Diefenbach, 1997) [6]

In other words, they are stereotyped as homicidal maniacs and violent. A research proved that 55% of the mental characters were originally shown as victims of abuse, “When pushed too far they became dangerously aggressive and even violent, thus shifting from the victim to the victimizer” (Wilson et al. 1999, pp. 235) [5]. They were almost always poor and/or homeless and were being held by police for a crime about which they had little recall or understanding of having committed (Edney, 2004)[4]. They are being stereotyped as subjugates who have no family, occupation or social identity or that they are rebellious, ruthless and unruly members who need be cultivated (Stuart, 2006)[2]. This is why they are many times portrayed in situations in which they seem irresponsible and need to have someone to take their life decision for them. Byrne (2000, pp. 66)[7] believes that they are “used as substrates for comedy, more usually laughing at than laughing with the characters.” They are viewed in certain movies as objects of amusement, loss of control, derision and fear. Therefore, they should be feared and excluded out of most communities.
Many other movies portray mental patients as benevolent, childlike that need to be cared for (Corrigan, 1998)[8]. Based on a prime-time TV drama analysis, 43% of mental characters lacked comprehension of their roles and were misplaced and disorganized. “Characters typically spoke with grammatically simple language, in a childish voice, and were depicted as helpless and disheveled” said Edney (2004, pp. 4)[4]. In movies they tend to avoid discussion of reasons that led to homelessness this creates the impression that mental patients are dependent on others. Edney (2004) [4] concluded the results of the research in which 67% of mentally ill patients were presented unproductive failures. This is portrayed by lack of employment, nonexistent interactions with family and friends, and by living alone in either broken-down apartments, or on the streets. 55% of the portrayals also enforce lack of social life and positive relationships within the community. “They were, in fact, seen to live on the fringe of the community” said Edney(2004)[4], Mental illness has been viewed similar to drug addiction, prostitution and drug addiction because they are perceived to be in control of their illness and responsible for causing it.(Corrigan, 1998)[8]. Moreover, there are a number of different cinematic devices used to film mentally patients’ community in movies. For example: “They are filmed alone with close-up or extreme shots, reinforcing their isolation and dislocation from the other characters” said Stuart, (2006, pp. 100)[2].

The consequences of negative portrayal and stereotyping
Negative media portrayals go beyond the mentally ill people to their treatment. Studies show that the exposure to media that distorts the reality of mental illness cultivates missing information about crime and misconceptions about who committed them. Plus, it stimulates intolerance towards the mentally ill and negatively impacts the public evaluations of mental health issues (Stuart, 2006)[2]. Media has also negatively affected the treatment procedures and exaggerated its inhumane effects. For example: “Images of confinement, electric shock and psychosurgery have horrified audiences and even patients” (Stuart, 2006)[2]. The over-rated focus on impaired function and behavior endorses gloomy views of psychiatric treatment. Thus, these negative portrayals cause distress to actual real life mental patients and their family members. Stuart (2006)[2], analyzed the responses of family advocates of real life mental patients to surveys report. They reported encountering false media representations of the mentally ill and the illnesses that left them feeling angry, hurt, sad and discouraged (Stuart, 2006)[2]. This negative portrayal hinders the social performance of patients and affects their treatment and recovery. One third of the actual patients themselves reported that their family and friends treated them differently mainly because of untrue and adverse media coverage. “The expectation that one will be stereotyped because of a mental illness produces social dysfunction and disability that patients are afraid to disclose this fact to others” said Stuart (2006)[2]. Moreover, they blame negative media imagery for treatment related problems such as denial of symptoms; failed desires seek treatment and poor devotion to its procedures. Portraying mental health people with to be violent and reckless, government policies and regulation will work on contaminating, isolating and controlling them than helping them recover and adapt to the community. “If public perception of mental illness is based on negative and false images perpetuated by the media, there is a danger that government responses to systems and people in the mental health field will also be based on these false realities, rather than on the true needs and issues of people suffering from mental illness” said Cutcliffe & Hannigan (2001, pp. 102).[3]

The portrayal of mental health professionals in the media
Film presents in accurate information as well about psychiatric treatments and its authorities. These in accurate depictions affect the credibility of psychiatry in many ways. Psychiatrists are portrayed as “neurotic, unable to maintain professional boundaries, drug- or alcohol-addicted, rigid, controlling, ineffectual, mentally ill themselves, comically inept, uncaring, self-absorbed, having ulterior motives, easily tricked and manipulated, foolish, and idiotic” said Grinfeld (1998)[9]. Edney (2004)[4] concluded the results of a number of researches. First is one conducted in the US by U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, (1999). The percentage of those mental patients who seek treatment were less that 50%, second, is a research conducted by Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in 2002 in Canada, in which less than 33% seek out for treatment. “Depictions of mental health practitioners as exploitative, mentally unstable, and unethical may do irreparable harm to people who are already hesitant to seek treatment, by making the prospect of getting help appear frightening and the help itself appear likely to be ineffective” said Freeman et al. 2001, cited in Edney,2004)[4].

The changing minds campaign
A number of steps have been taken towards trying to reduce stigma done by the media. The American Psychiatric Association arranges yearly meetings titled ‘overcoming stigma’ since the year 1989. Whatever has been said in these meetings was successively published as a collection of articles. In the year 1999, the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ launched a five year Changing Minds anti-stigma campaign (Byrne, 2000)[7]. Goffman (1963) [10] believes that this is not enough and that for any change to occur, the media should ultimately be the means of any campaign that aims to challenge and replace the stereotypes. Byrne (2000)[7] believes that the repetitive presence of stigma and the shortage of language to describe its discourse have aided in the delaying its transfer since there is no word for the prejudice against mental illness. He suggested the use of the term ‘psychophobic’ to describe any individual who continues to hold prejudicial attitudes about mental illness. People who launch campaigns should keep in mind that language has been a key factor in the success of campaigns that oppose discrimination of gender, age, religion, colour, size and physical disability (Thompson & Thompson, 1997, cited in Byne, 2000)[7]. Moreover, encouraging an enhanced understanding of the causes of an illness and how it works is likely to reduce stigma (McGuffin & Martin, 1999)[11]. Other scholars such as Huxley (1993)[12] recognize that the vital factor is direct contact with people who have had “helpful treatment for episodes of mental illness” or to confront the people who create stigma with his or her irrational beliefs, in addition to enabling direct contact with between a treated patient and a stigmatizer. Bringing this to real life scenarios, the Changing Minds campaign has succeeded in publishing medical journals articles on stigma, clarifying misconceptions of mental illnesses and sorting out stigmas and confronting possible imposers of stigma. Plus, the internet is an extremely effective means of allocating and dispensing information and specific anti-stigma initiatives. Readers can access information about campaigns and their context such as Changing Minds and other sources of evidence that prove stigma wrong. In addition, young children are the decision makers of the next millennium; this is why Wolff et al., (1996)[13] suggested listening to the concerns of the people whose attitudes one wishes to change especially young ones and children who have definite fears that need to be acknowledged and addressed, and in this group, reductions in the levels of fear can be achieved with educational intercessions. Other formal settings, (schools, welfare services, offices) will require the same type of information that would be tailored to their needs. This information includes convincing the target group of the impact of stigma/discrimination, how to challenge the stereotypes within ourselves and others, and follow the continuous task of unscrambling the nature of prejudice.

In conclusion, the on-screen portrayals of mental patients are very frequent in the sense that the media is aware of the members of the society who are mentally ill. However, these portrayals are thought to be negative and stereotypical by scholars. These stereotypes created about the mentally ill and how they’re treated by psychiatrist have adverse effects on their psychology and their chances of perusing treatment. There have been a number of steps taken and suggested to help reduce the stigma created but there is still doubt if any has been effective at all.

[1] Millett, Kate. “BrainyQuote.” BrainyQuote. Xplore, n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2013. Retrieved from
[2] Stuart, H. (2006). Media portrayal of mental illness and its treatments: What effect does it have on people with mental illness? CNS Drugs, 20(2), 99-99. doi:10.2165/00023210-200620020-00002
[3] Cutcliffe, J. R., & Hannigan, B. (2001). Mass media, ‘monsters’ and mental health clients: The need for increased lobbying. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 8(4), 315-321. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2850.2001.00394.x
[4] Edney, D. R. (2004). Mass Media and Mental Illness: A Literature Review, Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario. Retrieved from
[5] Wilson, C., Nairn, R., Coverdale, J., & Panapa, A. (1999). Mental illness depictions in prime-time drama: Identifying the discursive resources. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 33(2), 232-232. doi:10.1046/j.1440-1614.1999.00543.x
[6] Diefenbach, D. L. (1997). The portrayal of mental illness on prime-time television. Journal of Community Psychology, 25(3), 289-302. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1520-6629(199705)25:3<289::AID-JCOP5>3.0.CO;2-R
[7] Byrne, P. (2000). Journal of continuous development. Stigma of mental illness and ways of diminishing it. Retrieved from html
[8] Corrigan, P. W. (1998). The impact of stigma on severe mental illness. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 5(2), 201-222. doi:10.1016/S1077 7229(98)800060
[9] Grinfeld, M. J. (1998). Psychiatry and mental illness: Are they mass media targets? Psychiatric Times, 15(3).
[10] Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
[11] McGuffin, P. & Martin, N. (1999). Behaviour and genes. British Medical Journal, 319(7201), 37-40.
[12] Huxley, P. (1993). Location and stigma: A survey of community attitudes to mental illness – part 1. enlightenment and stigma. Journal of Mental Health, 2(1), 73-80. doi:10.3109/09638239309016956
[13] Wolff, G., & Left, J. (1996). Public education for community care: A new approach. European Psychiatry, 11, 283s-283s. doi:10.1016/0924-9338(96)88858-4

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