Media & Mental Health Stigma: The problem or the Solution?


(Stomping out Mental Health Stigma, NHS)

In his 2010 TED Talk, Andrew Steward describes his experience with schizophrenia stating,  “when someone breaks an arm we write all over their cast, but when someone suffers from mental problems we run the other way.”  According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), one in five people under the age of 65 will experience some sort of mental illness. Enormous stigma, judgment and discrimination are associated with mental illness.  Despite the fact that mental illness is so widespread the public appears to have very little understanding about mental illness.  CMHA lists and dispute the top 10 myths Canadians hold surrounding mental illnesses.  All of the following are incorrect and do not take into account the complexity of mental illness (please see the CMHA website for more details).

Myth #1: Mental illness means that guy is crazy; he isn’t really sick.
Myth #2: Addictions to drugs and alcohol are the result of a lack of willpower.
Myth #3: Mentally ill people have lower intelligence and are poorer than the rest of the population.
Myth #4: Bad parenting causes mental illness.
Myth #5: People with mental illnesses are violent and dangerous. 
Myth #6: If a person has schizophrenia, they have multiple personalities. 
Myth #7: Electrical shock therapy is like torture. It is inhumane, outdated and completely ineffective.
Myth #8: Once you are diagnosed with a mental illness, you are crazy for the rest of your life.
Myth #9: All people get depressed, as they grow older; it is part of the aging process.
Myth #10: People with a mental illness cannot hold down a job. 

Where do all these misunderstandings stem from?

One answer is the media. A recent Canadian review of a number of academic studies concluded five powerful things:

  1. The mass media is the public’s main source of information about mental illness.
  2. The information presented by the media about mental illness are often stereotypes that are negative and wrong.
  3. Negative public attitudes of mental health are connected to negative media portrayals.
  4. Negative media portrayals directly and negatively affect those living with mental illness.
  5. Government responses to mental health issues are connected to negative media portrayals of mental illness.

Media has also been using its power for good.

Various ad campaigns, tv shows movies, and film have begun addressing the stigma of mental illness by presenting realistic portrayals of mental illnessBelow are a couple of British advertisements addressing the stigma surrounding mental illness and these types of public myths in humorous ways.

United Kingdom Government Public Service Announcement (60 sec):


Time to Change (61 sec):

In TV, an approach called Entertainment Education (EE) has begun to be used to portray mental illness and its treatment in realistic ways. EE is described as “entertainment with social benefits” by its creator Miguel Sabido (Baker, 2005)  and has been outlined in a number previous blog posts within this blog by my colleagues. 

There has been limited research linking the positive effects of the media on a public beliefs and attitudes about mental illness. However, a 2009 study demonstrated the positive effects of a “multimedia outreach effort to youth dealing with bi-polar disorder” using an EE in a series of episodes on the popular show 902010.

This success suggests that EE can be effectively used to combat the negative impact of media on the public’s understandings of mental illness. In 2005, an American organization called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) began recognizing “consumer/peer leaders and TV and film professionals who educate the public about the real experiences of people [struggling with mental health conditions]” with their Voice Award program.  The 902010 bi-polar story line referred to above won a SAMHSA Voice award in 2009.  The following TV shows were recipients of SAMHSA Voice Awards in 2012 for their realistic portrayals of mental illness showing us that media can be part of the solution in the fight against mental health stigma

  • Castle – Season 4 Episode 9 “ Kill Shot”
  • Glee – Season 3 Episode 14 “On My Way” 
  • Homeland – Season 1 Episode 11 “ The Vest” 
  • Law & Order: SVU – Season 13 Episode 1 “Personal Fouls” 
  • Necessary Roughness – (The entire series) 
  • Parenthood – Season 3 Episodes 5-9 

Chelsea H.

References not linked to:

Barker K. Sex, soap, and social change: The Sabido methodology. Haider, M., ed. In: Global Public Health Communication: Challenges, Perspectives, and Strategies. Sudbury, Massachusetts, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2005. p. 113-154.

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