How Mental Illness is Misrepresented in the Media

Insidious portrayals on TV shape perceptions about real-life people with psychological disorders

on air
If you know more about mental illness, it’s easier to distinguish between fact and fiction

By Kirstin Fawcett
April 16, 2015

Mental illnesses are all severe – or all alike. According to Diefenbach’s research, depression only accounted for 7 percent of the psychiatric disorders shown on TV. However, 12 percent of the characters suffered from some form of psychosis – experiencing delusions or voices, or losing touch with reality.

In reality, depression is much more common than mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. “The real-world relationship is going to be that depression outnumbers the family of psychotic disorders by about 6 or 7 percent to one,” Diefenbach says. Yet on TV, the most extreme cases – and the most rare disorders – tend to be disproportionately represented.

Individuals with mental illness also note that various conditions tend to get lumped together. “Mental illness” is used as a catch-all phrase to describe someone’s condition, as opposed to specific medical terminologies such as “schizophrenia” or “anxiety disorder.” And even then, little variation is shown from patient to patient; one movie portrayal of bipolar disorder tends to resemble another.

“There’s no discussion that each disease is different in each person, because each person is unique,” notes Nikki Marks, 46, who has bipolar disorder. “In real life, mental illness shows up differently in everybody. The media does not represent the complexity of mental illness in general. There’s this sense that it’s just a one-name-fits-everybody, or one-title-fits-everybody.”

Psychiatric hospitals cause more harm than good. Hospitals for the mentally ill have come a long way since 17th century Europe, when cold, dark facilities housed hoards of physically and mentally disabled patients, along with prostitutes, alcoholics and other social outcasts. Those mental institutions resembled a prison more than a place of healing – an image that’s still perpetuated by cinema, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Salamanca in Spain.

Despite sweeping reforms that occurred over the past half-century, many films and television shows continue to portray psychiatric hospitals as bereft of comfort or care – empty corridors, bare walls and intimidating wings filled with manipulative doctors whose treatments cause more harm than good. And patients are often shown as committed against their will, or psychotic and out-of-control.

While all medical facilities differ in quality and care, today’s psychiatric wards and treatments are different – even if the public’s perception of them isn’t, experts say. And despite the common television or movie theme of a patient being sent to a psychiatric hospital against his or her will, that’s often not the case.

“In reality, a great number of people elect to go to [psychiatric wards],” says Wahl, dispelling the notion that most patients are involuntarily committed. Laws differ from state to state, but on average it’s very difficult to send patients to a psychiatric ward against their will.

People with mental illnesses can’t recover. “Recovery is seldom shown” in the media, Wahl notes. “When people [are shown seeking] therapy, when they go to psychiatric hospitals – rarely do they get better.” And if they do get better, he adds, “it’s enough that they’re stabilized, but not enough so that … they’re integrated with the world, and have friends and jobs.” The resulting message, he says, is that individuals with mental illnesses have no hope for a “normal” life.

The reality is that this isn’t true: Experts say not only do patients often recover from psychiatric illnesses, but they can live health lives with the help of medications, therapy and support networks.

Pamela, a 57-year-old who lives in the District of Columbia who did not wish to use her last name, cites her story as proof. Pamela has bipolar disorder, and spent years dropping in and out of college and shuffling between doctors. But 10 years ago, she finally found a medication that stabilized her moods. She moved out of a group home, purchased a condo, held down a job and recently retired from her job as an office assistant.

“My recovery,” Pamela says, “was like a phoenix rising out of an abyss.”

Source: U.S.News Health Report

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