The media has a direct effect on our perceptions of people, especially when it comes to mental health — a topic that is often inaccurately portrayed in the news and entertainment. When mental illness is used as a joke or dramatic prop instead of a real issue that many people are facing, it reinforces the stigma surrounding mental illness in our society. There has definitely been an improvement in the portrayals of mental health in the media. I remember watching the show Glee when I was younger; looking back on Emma’s compulsions to clean, and her struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I strongly identify with her now. However, there were also scenes in the show where her OCD was used as a punchline, such as when someone throws up on her and she goes to the emergency room to have four decontamination showers. Such inaccurate depictions are pervasive and damage our perceptions of people with mental illness. This negative perception combined with a lack of information on mental health often leads to people going their whole life without being properly diagnosed or treated.
When mental illness is used as a joke or dramatic prop instead of a real issue that many people are facing, it reinforces the stigma surrounding mental illness in our society.
For years, I have struggled with intrusive thoughts and compulsions that I perform excessively, as well as extreme skin-picking. These habits, which I tried to control and desperately wanted to be rid of, consumed my life at times and contributed to my own insecurities and belief that I was a terrible person. Growing up, I never realized that these compulsions were actually symptoms of a mental illness. It was only recently that I received the help I needed and started the process of treating my obsessivecompulsive disorder.
OCD is often only depicted in the media as liking neatness and orderliness — it is portrayed as a personality trait rather than a mental illness. While many with OCD do struggle with maintaining order, these compulsions are attempts at reducing anxiety and provide temporary relief until the compulsions comes back. Living with OCD means living with constant intrusive thoughts and rituals. If the media that we consume starts showing more honest and truthful stories, people with mental illness will be able to see their struggles portrayed in a real and relevant way. Furthermore, authentic portrayals can lead to meaningful conversations in communities and between family and friends, helping to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.
To someone with a mental illness, an accurate portrayal of their struggles can be the start of recognizing they are not alone. The realization that your struggles are the manifestations of an illness can be very helpful and cathartic. When we portray sick people as fundamentally broken instead of as people who are suffering from an illness, we create a culture where people with mental illness are shunned from society. Western media has a tendency to sensationalize images of people with mental illness committing crimes, when the vast majority obviously does not fit this stereotype. The same is done in movies, where storylines about mental illnesses are used for dramatic effect, despite the stigma they create. We must be open to further education and conversations about mental health, especially as we’re growing up, to ensure that people with mental illness can identify their experiences and get the treatment they need. However, it is important to keep in mind that treatment can come in many forms. In the context of mental illness, it can include medication, but also discussions with a professional, mindfulness, meditation, and various other forms of therapy tailored to each individual.
Western media has a tendency to sensationalize images of people with mental illness committing crimes, when the vast majority obviously does not fit this stereotype.
An example of this harmful representation can be seen in YouTuber Shane Dawson’s portrayal of sociopathy. Dawson’s series on “The Mind of Jake Paul” is an in-depth, ongoing series about YouTuber Jake Paul’s life and motives. The second episode of the series discussed the possibility that Paul exhibits sociopathic tendencies. The term “sociopath” is not a recognized mental disorder, the mental illness he is referring to is known as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). The video includes b-roll footage of a shadow of a person eating another person, with creepy background music creating the effect of a horror movie. Throughout the video, a therapist makes insensitive comments, at one point referring to people with ASPD as “really gross.” The video failed to provide a meaningful and accurate discussion of the illness, instead portraying everyone with ASPD as monsters incapable of emotion. There is a wide spectrum of people with ASPD, and creating a narrative where all people with ASPD should be feared is misinformative and harmful. It is essential that the conversations about mental health are structured in a responsible way. While friends and family can notice symptoms, only professionals such as a psychiatrist or licensed therapist should diagnose a mental illness. All representation is not good representation, and this spreading of harmful stereotypes amongst an audience as young as Dawson’s is concerning.
The way we pejoratively use mental illnesses in our day-today language is a direct result of inaccurate representations of mental health. Calling someone bipolar because their mood can be erratic, OCD because they like order, or a sociopath because you dislike them, is not only incredibly offensive but also discourages productive conversations. I do not think Shane Dawson, or many people who have used mental illnesses in a negative way, always come from a place of ill-intent; it often comes from a place of ignorance. There is little to no education in schools about mental health, and the negative perceptions of mental illness in the media further stigmatize it. This must change; it is essential that we continue to raise awareness about mental illness in order to create a society in which discussions of mental health are taken seriously, media representations of mental illness are accurate and honest, and people with mental illness can find the treatment they need.