Media Portrayal of Mental Illness in America The media in American society has a major influential impact on the minds and beliefs of millions of people. Whether through the news, television shows, or film, the media acts as a huge database for knowledge and instruction. It is both an auditory and visual database that can press images and ideas into people's minds. Even if the individual has no prior exposure or knowledge to something, the media can project into people's minds and leave a lasting impression. Though obviously people are aware of what they are listening to or watching, thoughts and assumptions can drift into their minds without even realizing it. These thoughts that drift in are extremely influential.
The massive impact it can leave on America's perception leads to generalizations, assumptions, and stigmas. The media influence is not always negative, however. In most cases it has beneficial and positive aspects. Without the media, people would be drastically less informed and conscientious about major issues in the world around us.
In some cases, however, the way the media portrays an issue can twist one's perception, leaving an assumption instead of a factual concept. Mental illness is one of the biggest concepts that the media has distorted due to the majority of portrayals the media presents. Mental health is extremely important and plays a key role in every individual's life. Yet it is also has millions of misconceptions. Mental illness is more common that one would like to believe.
In reality, one in five Americans will suffer from a mental disorder in any given year. Though that ratio is about equivalent to more than fifty-four million people, mental illness still remains a shameful and stigmatized topic (National Institute of Mental Health, n. d. ).
The taboo of mental illness has an extensive and exhausting history, dating back to the beginning of American colonization. It has not been an easy road to say the least. Due to the endless efforts and research of certain foundations and individuals, the ideas and functions of mental health have improved significantly. The advancements made in the field are impressive and without them humankind would not be the same. Yet then why do only fewer than eight million people who are in need of help seek treatment? (National Mental Health Association, 2001). The history, stigmatization, and perception of mental illness are some of the many reasons behind that alarming statistic.
The history of mental health and illness is extensive and dates back to the beginning of the colonization of America. The mentally ill were cared for at home by their families until the state recognized that it was a problem that was not going to go away. In response, the state built asylums. These asylums were horrendous; people were chained in basements and treated with cruelty. Though it was the asylums that were to blame for the inhumane treatment of the patients, it was perceived that the mentally ill were untamed crazy beasts that needed to be isolated and dealt with accordingly. In the opinion of the average citizen, the mentally ill only had themselves to blame (Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health, 1999).
Unfortunately, that view has haunted society and left a lasting impression on the minds of Americans. In the era of 'moral treatment', that view was repetitively attempted to be altered. Asylums became 'mental hospitals' in hope of driving away the stigma yet nothing really changed. They still were built for the untreatable chronic patients and due to the extensive stay and seemingly failed treatments of many of the patients, the rest of the society believed that once you went away, you were gone for good.
Then the era of 'mental hygiene' began late in the nineteenth century. This combined new concepts of public health, scientific medicine, and social awareness. Yet despite these advancements, another change had to be made. The era was called 'community mental health' and continued until 1975. In the beginning the main focus was deinstitutionalization in hopes of connecting the mentally ill to the rest of the world. This advocated knowledge, education, and social support in hopes of erasing the stereotypes of mental illness that was installed in society from the beginning.
Also, this led to the final reform movement, which began in 1975 and still continues today. This "community support" era views mental illness in terms of social welfare. Some problems include education, employment, housing, and governmental assistance (Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health, as cited in Morrison and Goldman, 1984). Table 2-10. Historical reform movements in mental health treatment in the United States Reform movement Era Setting Focus of Reform Moral Treatment 1800-1850 Asylum Humane, restorative treatment Mental Hygiene 1890-1920 Mental hospital or clinic Prevention, scientific orientation Community Mental Health 1955-1970 Community mental health center Deinstitutionalization, social integration Community Support 1975-present Community support Mental illness as a social welfare problem (e. g.
, housing, employment) Sources: Morrissey & Goldman, 1984; Goldman & Morrissey, 1985. In addition to the historical aspect, confusion about mental health is another reason leading to the perception of the mentally ill. The Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health, (1999), dispels any confusion by making detailed analogies and information. Mental health and mental illness are not opposites; they are like two points on a continuum. The value of mental health is indescribable; it is what makes a person who they really are. Mental health involves mental function resulting in successful productive behavior and is the key to healthy relationships with other people.
Mental health is the underlying backbone of growth, self-esteem, emotional well being, and communication. Mental illness refers to diagnosable mental disorders. Impaired functioning and personal distress are the result of the alterations in mood, behavior, and cognitive skills that mental illness creates. People tend to see mental illness as something separate and incomparable to themselves because they do not understand the concepts that mental health pertains to. Those who have no experience with mental illness tend to believe that mental illness is so far from mental health, which can result in stigmas. These misconceptions of the basic structure of one's self lead people to isolate themselves from the problem of mental illness.
The media uses these misconceptions and lack of knowledge in the sense that rarely are connections made between "normal people and crazy people." They are seen as complete opposites, when despite the obvious differences, mental illness can happen to anyone at anytime. Another reason media portrayal plays a major role in perception of mental illness is due to stigmatization. This leads people to distrust, biases, stereotypes, and fear. As a result of it people avoid such situations where contact could occur (Corrigan & Penn, 1999). This response leads to people not wanting to be in the same category as the 'crazy people' and thus not receiving treatment if they felt they really needed it. In the media people with mental illness are viewed as crazy and violent.
In reality though over ninety percent of mentally ill people are not a risk to the community. There are more instances of violence involving those in the community without mental illness. When there are cases where violence is involved, more than two-thirds of the cases involve verbal assault. The chances of a serious injury are very slim (Mental Health Organization, n.
d. ). Despite the history and stigmatization surrounding mental illness, perception of the mentally ill has changed in some ways in the past few decades. Back in the 1950's, people saw mental illness as an unidentifiable and confusing concept. The public was uneducated and unaware of the truth of mental illness. Surveys and studies show that back then people could not differentiate between normal lows and diagnosable symptoms; this was due to lack of knowledge and the social stigma surrounding disorders.
In the late nineties more studies were conducted that showed that the general public were now able to correctly define mental illness. Though the definition was extended to include several disorders, perceptions of the mentally ill changed according to the diagnosis of the disorder. Though some things had changed, the social stigma appears to still be with us (Star, 1952, 1955, Gurin et al. , 1960, Veroff et al. , 1981, Swindle et al.
, 1997). Media portrayal has influenced all factors involved with the public definition of mental illness. In some cases it is beneficial, for it at least makes people aware of mental illness instead of ignoring the problem by isolation, as it was done in the beginning. Studies show that at least seventy percent of Americans have seen or heard about some aspect of mental illness in the news in the past six months (National Mental Health Association, 2000).
Yet in most cases it affects the awareness aspect negatively. A series of surveys found that selective media reporting reinforced the public's stereotypes regarding the association of violence and mental illness. It encourages people to distance themselves from mental illness and those with it (Anger meyer & Matschinger, 1996). Media portrayal influences are strong in news, television, and film. For this class I have seen many films featuring a character with mental illness.
I believe that those portrayals influence the perception of mental illness very strongly, especially when the viewer does not have much education about the issue. The images they see leave a lasting imprint on the minds of Americans. The first movie I viewed was "Girl, Interrupted." In this film there are two main characters that have borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. The film takes place in a mental hospital. The ward is depicted as a friendly and comforting atmosphere that does have its ups and downs but is generally a home like atmosphere. The characters are depicted somewhat correctly; the only discrepancies found where in some of the symptoms surrounding the two disorders.
The main character Susanna was supposed to have borderline personality disorder. However, I found that she was not a realistic borderline. She did not seem to have any emotion towards her situation or anyone in her life. A true borderline waves back and forth with how she feels about many of the people in her life. If anything, Susanna was depressed. The other main character, Lisa, was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.
She was my favorite character in the film; she portrayed her disorder perfectly. The second film I viewed was "What About Bob?' The character Bob had multi-phobic personality disorder with acute separation anxiety. This film was a comedy, so the symptoms and the possible severe consequences were downplayed to keep the movie light. Despite that fact, the character was accurately portrayed in the sense that it showed his compulsiveness symptoms such as wiping off door handles and other publicly used objects with a napkin that he always carries with him. One of the first scenes was about Bob having to conquer his fear of riding on a bus. He got on the bus, and then got off it, then on, etc...
He followed his new psychiatrist and his family to their summer vacation home because he could not deal with the thought of not having him near. The psychiatrist gets more and more fed up and just wants Bob to leave him alone. But his family feels the exact opposite. There was one scene I did not think followed the disorder. Bob and the psychiatrist's son go out to the diving dock by the lake and the boy is scared to swim. Bob is as well.
It terrifies him. They end up both going in together, which I believe would have taken more coaxing and time by the diving dock. The movie "As Good As It Gets" tells the story of a man with obsess ive-compulsive disorder and the relationships he has with a waitress and his neighbor. This movie was an accurate portrayal of the disorder.
Melvin, the main character, eats at the same restaurant with the same waitress at the same table and orders the same meal (with slight variations) everyday. He brings his own plastic silverware and carries gloves with him in public so germs do not get on his hands. Other symptoms of the disorder are shown by his excessive hand washing with new bars of soap each time; not walking on any lines or cracks on the sidewalks; and locking the door a certain number of times each time he enters his apartment. The movie perfectly shows the eccentricities of this disorder; however, what it does not accurately portray is the way he "overcomes" his disorder.
A person with such a disorder would not just walk on a line or crack on the sidewalk because their girlfriend or boyfriend wants them to. The end of the movie depicts the waitress and Melvin (who are now romantically involved) walking together and Melvin steps on a crack and it does not even faze him. This leads the viewer to believe that disorders are easily reversible and can be cured with love. Unfortunately, this does not happen in real life. Mental illness is not something that is overcome in a short period of time.
It generally takes a lot of treatments and time before such a significant progression is made. Also, it is a sad thing to realize but in reality, love cannot conquer everything. Another movie I viewed was "Don't Say A Word" in which a top-notch psychiatrist needs to unravel a decade of pathology in order to get a six-digit number from a mentally disturbed eighteen year old female. Dr. Conrad needs this number desperately to save his eight-year-old daughter from kidnappers who want that number.
Elisabeth Burrows is a patient that has been given almost every diagnosable disorder possible. Her latest diagnosis is catatonic schizophrenia. Dr. Conrad is on a time limit; he has until evening to break the girl's silence. Of course he succeeds.
He knows that she is not really catatonic and proves it by simply moving her arm. When she does moves it back to her original position, he tells her that he knows she is faking and she gives in. In reality, Elisabeth would possibly move her arm back or she might not. She would also know, especially after being in a mental hospital for ten years, that catatonic movements could involve cataplexy or it could not. Dr. Conrad gets her to help by showing her pictures and dolls that his little girl made in order to sensitize her to his situation; a few hours later it works.
In reality, no one, not even the best psychiatrist in the world, could get a patient such as Elisabeth to truthfully open up as she did in just one day. Also, the patient would not just forget ten years of institutionalization and get over the disorder in a day. Obviously it had to happen that way in the movie to speed up the psychological thriller but this leaves viewers with the false impression that mental illness is not that serious if it can be cured in a day. Elisabeth Burrows was an excellent character who was accurately portrayed as a person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder except for the fact that she broke through and helped Dr.
Conrad so easily. She was depicted as violent, however, because she had killed a man with a razor in her last hospital and it took five guards to hold her down. This adds to the present assumption that mentally ill people are violent. In reality, those with that disorder can act aggressively but the chances of murder are very slim. Other movies viewed were "A Beautiful Mind", the story of a genius who develops schizophrenia; "Sybil", the story of a woman with multiple personality disorder; and "Benny and Joon", the story of a woman with schizophrenia. "A Beautiful Mind" was one the best movies I viewed and it is based on a true story.
The main character, John Nash, was a mathematical genius who was a professor at a prestigious Ivy League college. However, something is not right with him. In the beginning the audience watches as Nash is asked by the Department of Defense to work with them on a secret project that he could tell no one about. He is supposed to communicate with the department through letters from a mailbox at a nearby home. It is huge surprise later on when his wife goes into their garage and discovers his "secret work." It is just an old garage of old scraps of paper from newspapers all circles in red marker all over the entire garage. To Nash, however, this was his new "office", which in his mind was fully equipped with mathematical instruments and information.
We soon learn that the mailbox he goes to is one at an abandoned house that no one has lived in for quite some time. In Nash's mind it was an occupied home with guards roaming the property so he had to be quick and sneaky. The biggest shock is when we learn that his college roommate and best friend was a figment of his imagination. All of it - the asking of the Dept.
of Defense for help, the garage office, the dropping of letters, and his roommate - were hallucinations and became worse as the disease progressed. This movie brilliantly depicted the disorder, from the general confusion, the loner personality, the hallucinations and delusions, to the heartbreaking course of the hell that is schizophrenia, perfectly. The movie "Sybil" is about a woman in her late twenties/ early thirties with multiple personality disorder. The film shows her mother's horrendous treatment of Sybil as a child and how that affected her as an adult. The mother, Hattie Dorsett, pushed buttons into her daughter's private areas, burned her hand on the stove, locked her in closets, and several other atrocities. Sybil had twenty seven different personalities that for the most part had different mannerisms, dress style, personality, and even sex.
It was dramatically displayed in the scenes with Dr. Wilbur, Sybil's psychiatrist. It is an older film, so the display of Sybil as a woman with the disorder was good for its time. It shows the acts committed against Sybil as traumatic and appalling. However it does not go into too much detail about the other aspects of Sybil's life in order to show a full and detailed display of her other personalities. I first saw the movie in my eighth grade health class, which sparked my interest in the disorder and psychology in general.
The final movie, "Benny and Joon" was a fair representation of schizophrenia. The disorder must have not been too extreme because in some scenes Joon could have passed off as just a little loony, but nothing to the extent of the seriousness of the real disorder. She does set a fire to her house, which shows her detachment to reality. The main male character in the movie, Benny, tries to help Joon all he can because he has fallen in love with her. Joon's older brother, with whom she lives with, is uneasy about the situation because he wants Benny to realize the difficulties of Joon. He is happy for her at the same time, because before Benny she pretty much stayed in the house painting on large canvases of all types of eccentric art.
The movie was cute for it showed that despite her disorder she was still able to fall in love and have an intimate adult relationship. The movie was largely focused on their budding romance, her small eccentricities of being too loud and giggling all the time, and her artwork, so for the circumstances Joon was well portrayed as a woman with what I would say was mild schizophrenia. All of the movies were enjoyable to watch; yet they all had a few elements leading to the misconceptions of mental illness. Media portrayal greatly influences one's thoughts and behavior. When I began this project, I asked several of my friends what the first word that came to their minds was when they heard the phrase "mentally ill people." The most common response I was told was crazy. Other responses included sick, sad, hospitals, and disturbed.
Though I expected those responses, I at least expected more than one person to give an answer not relating to the stereotypes surrounding mental illness. This bothered me greatly because I am a psychology major that wants to go into clinical abnormal behavior. I talk to my friends all the time about things I learn in my classes and the facts about mental illness. Yet despite that, they still tend to view mental illness in the way that it is portrayed on television and in the movies. Lack of knowledge is not the reasoning behind that, for almost all of them have taken an introductory level psychology class. The reason has to be the social stigma surrounding mental illness, which is put forth in a large part by the media.
Due to these stigmas and misconceptions, most people would not go get help if they though they needed it and many people still shy away from the topic in general. It creates an uneasy feeling that if it is not thought about, it is believed it will go away. The media adds to that fact too, for rarely is the normal community shown interacting with the mentally ill. When it is shown, most of the interactions and scenarios are negatively portrayed. I always knew what kind of influence the media has on the minds of its viewers. Until I started this project and got into the research behind it, I did not realize to what effect it can have.
I know that the chances of the misconceptions that media portrayal presents changing in the near future is very slim, but hopefully one day all people in America can see all the sides and reality of mental illness. ReferencesAngermeyer, M. C. , & Matschinger, H.
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