The average person consumes media almost daily, whether that be online, social media, television or film, and we may not realise how much of an influence it has on our everyday life and beliefs. It has been found that around 70% of the public get their information from television alone.
The media we engage with gives us information about certain topics, mental health being one of them and especially the way people with mental health problems behave. Without realising the representations of different mental health problems on television shows, blockbuster films and even local news can be internalised and thus have a direct affect on how we as individuals think about these mental health issues. We may believe that because we saw a character suffer from depression on TV that we know exactly how it affects real people or that we understand the illness fully and this is problematic.
The media, while they have gotten better at representing mental health as a whole, tends to portray mental health and the people who have problems with it in a negative manner, and this is a massive factor in the stigma around many mental health issues. The reason these representations tend to be negative is that they are often based upon stereotypes, they are not based on facts and they are exaggerated for entertainment values.
Typical misconceptions that the media suggest people with mental health issues act and behave include showing; these people as more violent, physically looking different and messy, their symptoms are always extreme, recovery isn’t possible and that mental health hospitals are something to be scared of. It has also been found that two of the most common mental health problems, depression and anxiety are not actually portrayed as much as less common issues such as schizophrenia. Thus the media, which is supposed to be representative of the population it is being made for, isn’t portraying the most common mental health issues, only the ones that will have a more dramatic affect and thus most popular for entertainment purposes. These misconceptions come up in tv and films time after time and the ones that could be internalised by viewers and thus it is a vicious circle always adding more stigma to the topic of mental health.
It may be argued that the media is there partly to entertain, so what is the harm in a few over exaggerations of mental health. Well, actually there is a lot of harm these could do. These representations could; stop people seeking help, make people lose confidence in their own recovery, isolate individuals, negatively affect relationships with friends and families, and make people with mental health disorders feel like outsiders and not ‘normal’. Mass media promoting a false image of mental health has a huge affect on both people with mental health problems and how others view them, and at the moment this is leaning towards being more of a negative affect than a positive one. Mental health in many popular series and films are seen to be a personality trait to a character, one that makes them do irrational things and sees them very different to the other characters.
Mental health problems affect every individual in different ways, no individual is the same and neither is each person’s mental health. The media mostly seem to represent mental health problems in the same way time and time again, and this needs to change. With a society that is becoming more open about mental health, we are learning more about it everyday, and the media needs to reflect this change in attitudes and become more representative of a culture that understands mental health more and is more sympathetic to those suffering.
So what can the media do to rectify their mistakes in relation to the representation of mental health issues? It’s simple, educate themselves fully on the issue they are portraying rather than relying on stereotypes, choose the language they use carefully and most importantly think about the affect their media source will have on people with the mental health problem and what viewers will go away from the TV, film or article believing about mental health.
Mass media has a huge influence on our beliefs, their influence in today’s society is constant and their representations of mental health in particular needs to become a more positive one. By positive this purely means one that is accurate, based on facts not stereotypes, is not reduced to one behaviour, considers the feelings of viewers with mental health issues and uses its influence to educate rather than add to misconceptions and stigma.