Mental health in the media
Watch the first thirty seconds of the trailer for Split, a new film starring James McAvoy, and you’ll already sense your heart racing from fear. Complete with eerie music and glimpses of unusual behavior, you spiral into the depths of the life of a killer whose very sense of being and personality can change in an instant—a caricature-like portrayal of dissociative identity disorder.
This skewed portrayal isn’t unique to films in the United States. Films in the booming Bollywood industry in India often portray mental disorders in the form of crude comedy, showing the victim of mental illness as a subject of humor.
The information that people see and hear in the media drastically influences their daily lives. Media portrayals of mental illnesses can be tremendously powerful tools in either perpetuating or dispelling stigma. We often stumble across the former in most media outlets. After watching a film like Split, when someone mentions “identity disorder” your mind will flash to terrifying images which may make you unintendedly recoil. While, on one hand, we are aware that this content is in a film, it is often the first time that people are exposed to a depiction of mental illness. To make matters worse, many people are unable to critically evaluate information received from the media, as we have seen even more frequently through the emergence of “fake news”. When media sends a consistent message that creates a negative attitude towards a group of people, stigma is perpetuated.
There is a hidden burden of stigma to nearly all illnesses. Characterized by social disqualification of individuals, stigma can lead to limited access to health services and shame patients into avoiding treatment of manageable disorders. Such is often the case with mental illnesses. While mental illness is prevalent around the world, a study conducted last year found that one third of the global burden of mental illness falls on China and India and has regrettably increased over a 13-year period. Stigma associated with mental health problems in the two countries also impacts employment and marriage prospects for this population making this population particularly vulnerable.
So what can we do about this?
Well, one way is through health literacy. It is well known that there is great power in using education to reduce stigma effects. A study conducted in 2003 analyzed the efficacy of intervention with young people aimed at increasing mental health literacy in the United Kingdom and found positive attitude scores to rise significantly after a short educational workshop. However, this is a small cohort that may not impact the broader community in a direct way.
But what if we could reach a broader population through training the media to communicate about mental health more effectively? Educating the masses on the underpinnings of mental and neurological illnesses can have a tremendous effect in reducing preventable tragedies. At The Humanology Project we work to dispel stigma by changing the rhetoric around mental illness in the media through the incorporation of science communication. We are based out of Stony Brook University, where students enroll in a course to communicate science to become contributors to our website as writers. Through our news outlet Ethos News, we feature articles ranging from narratives of students coming to terms with their anxiety to depression in the LGBTQ community.
By training these future health professionals and journalists to communicate about mental illness effectively, we hope to create a new generation of professionals who will not only understand the underpinnings of mental illness but communicate them effectively. Our hope is to create a cascade effect where news media will in turn impact television, film, and even children’s programming.
In a global society where media is a tremendous force in our lives, we, as mental health advocates, should work our hardest to ensure that patients are being portrayed accurately and fairly.
Image: An office worker goes onto an online search engine for advice on depression. Image via