The Media and our Views on Mental Illness

Around exam time, students are obviously stressed. Stress is normal. I actually believe it’s healthy. I know students try to make light of their stress, and it’s probably a good way to take a breath amidst the stress of school. One thing that caught my attention recently though was through a speech one of my fellow classmates did, which was based around how people view mental illness thanks to the media. This got me asking myself, “have I ever romanticized or made light of a mental illness?”

I think the first time I realized how often we brush off signs of mental illness was when I saw a tweet around exam time that displayed the photo of Britney Spears shaving her head, with the caption “exams got me as stressed as Britney”. I will admit, I was guilty of laughing along with this, and maybe even retweeting it. But when I really thought about it, this was one moment where I did not consider how often the media displays mental illnesses as humorous or not as serious issues.

After hearing my classmates speech, I finally began to understand how the media impacts our views of mental illness. Think of the countless celebrities that have entered rehab, and how the media displayed their actions. Not one headline suggested helping these people, and rarely did it suggest mental illness as an impact at all. No wonder we sometimes confuse seeking attention with an internal mental battle. What we see in the media is what we believe, whether or not we think that is true. In our daily lives we come across more advertisements and media displays than ever before, and it shapes how we think.

Not only do I hope people can have an eye opening moment like I did through my classmate’s speech, but I hope people actually critically think about what they see. I know that since having my eyes opened to a new view on the media and how it shapes our views on mental illness, I have reconsidered retweeting any “stressed like Britney” tweets. I hope you do the same.


5 thoughts on “The Media and our Views on Mental Illness

  1. Thank you for opening this conversation. My problem with the media is about their coverage of shootings or other seemingly unexplainable acts of violence. It is the media who immediately go into searching for a mental health connection as if that could be the only way to explain what happened. You are right, media shapes what we believe and how we think. The connection violence – mental health seems established in our collective wisdom and gets perpetuated further with every news event.


    • Interesting article supporting your point:

      Facts About Mental Illness and Violence

      Fact 1: The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent.

      Here is what researchers say about the link between mental illness and violence:

      – “Although studies suggest a link between mental illnesses and violence, the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small, and further, the magnitude of the relationship is greatly exaggerated in the minds of the general population (Institute of Medicine, 2006).”

      – “…the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).”

      – “The absolute risk of violence among the mentally ill as a group is very small. . . only a small proportion of the violence in our society can be attributed to persons who are mentally ill (Mulvey, 1994).”

      -“People with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime (Appleby, et al., 2001). People with severe mental illnesses, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis, are 2 ½ times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population (Hiday, et al.,1999).”

      Fact 2: The public is misinformed about the link between mental illness and violence.

      A longitudinal study of American’s attitudes on mental health between 1950 and 1996 found, “the proportion of Americans who describe mental illness in terms consistent with violent or dangerous behavior nearly doubled.” Also, the vast majority of Americans believe that persons with mental illnesses pose a threat for violence towards others and themselves (Pescosolido, et al., 1996, Pescosolido et al., 1999).

      Fact 3: Inaccurate beliefs about mental illness and violence lead to widespread stigma and discrimination:

      The discrimination and stigma associated with mental illnesses stem in part, from the link between mental illness and violence in the minds of the general public (DHHS, 1999, Corrigan, et al., 2002).

      The effects of stigma and discrimination are profound. The President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health found that, “Stigma leads others to avoid living, socializing, or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders – especially severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. It leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking and wanting to pay for care. Responding to stigma, people with mental health problems internalize public attitudes and become so embarrassed or ashamed that they often conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment (New Freedom Commission, 2003).”

      Fact 4: The link between mental illness and violence is promoted by the entertainment and news media.

      “Characters in prime time television portrayed as having a mental illness are depicted as the most dangerous of all demographic groups: 60 percent were shown to be involved in crime or violence” (Mental Health American, 1999).

      “Most news accounts portray people with mental illness as dangerous” (Wahl, 1995).

      “The vast majority of news stories on mental illness either focus on other negative characteristics related to people with the disorder (e.g., unpredictability and unsociability) or on medical treatments. Notably absent are positive stories that highlight recovery of many persons with even the most serious of mental illnesses” (Wahl, et al., 2002).


  2. Thank you for bringing this to light! We should watch what we say a lot more but unfortunately we all have moments where we fail to remember this!


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