Throughout history, the public portrayal of mental illness has been subjugated by depictions of violence, seclusion, madness, loss, desolation, homelessness, personal failure, witchcraft and unsuccessful health and social outcomes (Henson et al 2009).
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Although the media have been credited for producing some of the most sensitive, educational and award-winning material on mental illness, the same institution is also blamed for generating a huge store of negative imagery with some of the most malevolent depictions of mental illness and horrendous illustrations of psychiatric treatments (Stuart 2006).
It is acknowledged in the literature that not only does media framing of health related issues influences both public and political opinion and may consequently impact on health and social policy (Henson et al 2009), but framing of mental illness is oriented more towards depictions of negative imagery, which are more memorable and of enormous concern to individuals with mental health challenges, their family members and mental health professionals (Stuart 2006).
The latter view is reinforced by Sieff (2003), who suggests that negative perceptions of mental illnesses are relentless in the mainstream media, in spite of advances in treatment and superior understanding of disease processes.
The present paper uses secondary research to investigate key issues of how the media influence society’s view on mental illness. In particular, the paper aims to highlight how media framing of mental illness influence society’s perceptions in five critical areas, namely: perceptions of crime and dangerousness; negative connotations; community care options; stigmatization, and; social relationships.
In recommendations, the central role of the media as allies in changing the negative perceptions held by society with regard to mental illness is highlighted with a view to advance greater awareness of the significance of advocacy in this area.
It is important to note that the articles used to conduct the secondary research have been selected to exemplify dominant themes, present interesting examples and draw attention to the principal issues on how the media influences society’s view on mental illness. Consequently, no attempt has been made to avail all-inclusive listing, synthesis or critical and analytical review of all publications in this domain.
Media Framing of Mental Illness & its Influence on Society
Available literature reveals that “…television news and current affairs coverage of mental health/illness in Australia represents only 6% of items with a main focus on a specific health condition” (Henson et al 2009, p. 557).
However, it is revealed in the literature that media framing of mental illness is a central theme of Australia’s National Mental Health Strategy, as clearly evidenced by a wide range of resources not only outlining how to deal with individuals with mental illness but also how to report these issues responsibly (Francis et al 2004).
It is important to note that media framing of health-related issues, which includes the way information is presented and organized in the media and construed by society (Sieff 2003), not only impacts directly on the perceptions and opinions held by society but also on the policies that may be adopted by government and private agencies to deal with such issues (Henson et al 2009).
Below, this paper investigates how media framing of mental illness influence society’s perceptions on the selected facets commonly associated with the mentally ill.
Framing & Crime and Dangerousness
According to Francis et al (2004), the observed developments in media framing of mental illness in Australia reflects deep-seated concerns with the nature of perceptions generated from reporting cases of mental illnesses in both broadcast and print media, in large part owing to the fact that “…the media tend to portray mental illness in a negative fashion, frequently linking it with violence, dangerousness and crime” (p. 542).
One notable study conducted in Australia to evaluate the portrayal of depression and other mental challenges in Australian nonfiction media found that a considerable proportion of media items in common mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and substance use disorders referred these conditions as criminal issues (Francis et al, 2005).
Indeed, a strand of existing literature (e.g. Stuart 2006; Clayton et al 2009; Klin & Lemish 2008) demonstrates that heavy exposure to media imagery of characters with a mental condition or news content of the mentally ill not only nurtures misinformation about crime and misconstructions about those who commit crimes, but also stimulates intolerance toward individuals with mental conditions and depressingly influences the way society evaluates mental health issues.
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For example, the news coverage of a murder by an individual with a mental illness is multiplied by the number of times it is aired over popular television channels and radio stations, reinforcing the erroneous impression that violence and crime among the mentally ill are frequent and recurring events.
In Australia, one study cited in Morgan & Jorm (2009) found that people’s attitudes and perceptions towards the mentally ill manifestly deteriorated directly after media news coverage of two violent attacks on well-known politicians by mentally challenged individuals.
Consequently, it can be argued that public fear and rejection of individuals with a mental illness increases, and negative stereotypes are reinforced each time a violent act hits the airwaves.
But in reality, Francis et al (2005) acknowledge that the level of portrayal of mental illness with criminal and dangerous orientations in both print and electronic media noted in previous studies tends to be incorrectly elevated, “…considering that the evidence indicates that people who have a mental illness are not significantly more likely than the general population to commit violent crime” (p. 292).
Indeed, Brekke et al (2001) cited in Glick & Applbaum (2010) reported that the popular perception found in media reports that schizophrenic individuals are criminal-oriented and dangerous is not supported by scientific data, which illustrate rather that this group of the population is more likely to be victims of violent acts than executors of it.
Framing & Negative Connotations
Henson et al (2009) acknowledge that although many media frames can be utilized in structuring health-related items, news about mental illnesses in most occasions employs “…several time-honoured genres including celebrity illnesses; gawp stories (depictions of eccentricity, abnormality and bizarre behavior); moral tales and falls from grace; scientific marvels; danger in the familiar, and the wisdom of commonsense cures” (p. 554).
Furthermore, Francis et al (2004) reports that articles printed in major national metropolitan daily newspapers as well as items aired on most government and private radio and television stations in Australia use negative or colloquial terms – such as insane, lunatic, maniac and whacko, among others – to refer to people with mental illness.
Such media depiction of people with mental illness do little to persuade the viewing members of society that people in this group of the population can recover from their illnesses and become productive members of society (Stuart 2006; Nairn 2007).
This evidence, in my view, demonstrates that the media, both print and electronic, have a predisposition to strengthen or reinforce negative and undesirable stereotypes of individuals with mental illness.
Framing & Community Care Options
Available literature demonstrates that the negative connotations used by the media on people with mental illness leads to lower endorsement of community care options as well as employer unwillingness to employ individuals suffering from these conditions (Henson et al 2009; Anderson 2003).
Indeed, many media portrayals of characters or real people with mental illness depict them as being compromised precisely in their educational and cognitive faculties, and with no chance whatsoever of reversing or preventing the trend (Glick & Applbaum 2010).
Additionally, according to these authors, the media depicts people with severe mental illness as suffering from “…lack of insight and disorganization, and this, in common health service understandings, affects their rate of adherence or compliance to medication and other prescribed services” (p. 230).
It therefore follows that the presumed lack of educational and cognitive capabilities predominant in people with mental illness acts as barriers to seeking suitable treatment options in this group of the population, and the general public is unable to assist them due to their perceptions of the mentally ill reinforced by the mainstream media.
The truth of the matter, however, is that we have numerous cases of people who have recovered from mental illnesses through community care options, but the media either decide to be mean with the truth or to feel comfortable to blur the reality with the intention of achieving own selfish interests.
Framing & Stigmatization
Henson et al (2009) note that the negative stereotyping of people with mental illness by the media “…has been described as a form of institutionalized stigma and may erode efforts to build community support for policies designed to reduce the isolation and discrimination experienced by people with mental illness and their families” (p. 554-555).
This view is acknowledged by Francis et al (2004), who argue the headlines of most newspapers as well as the content in most television programs engage in dramatic exaggerations and sensationalism against people with mental illness, leading to a scenario that influences society to adopt and perpetuate myths and stereotypes on this group of the population.
Such a scenario, in my view, not only encourage society to view people with mental illness as lacking in behavior and control but also discourages this group from seeking professional assistance from psychiatrists and counselors.
Indeed, such negative depictions perpetuated by the media often result in a greater inclination by society members to improperly perceive those with mental disorders as dangerous, not mentioning that they develop a preference not to reside near an individual suffering from mental illness (Anderson 2003; Nairn & Coverdale 2005).
Framing & Social Relationships
Mentally ill characters in most television episodes are often “…portrayed as disenfranchised with no family connections, no occupation and no social identity” (Stuart 2006, p 100).
In the real world, such depictions not only serve to further isolate the mentally ill from community but also reinforce an ill-informed belief that a mentally ill person is not endowed with capabilities found in normal people, such the ability to go through a formal education system or the ability to maintain a stable social relationship.
Consequently, it is safe to argue that the generic nature of mental illness portrayed in the popular media only serves to provoke negative generalizations to all mentally challenged people.
It is important to note that the presumption of disenfranchisement and lack of social identity erroneously portrayed by the media in regards to the mentally ill can be employed by members of society to rationalize forced legal action, coercive treatment, bullying and other types of victimization (Stuart 2006; Wahl 2003).
Such an orientation, in my view, not only leads to more isolation of the mentally ill as a direct consequence of negative media paucity but may lead the general public to develop feelings of dislike towards this group.
This discussion has demonstrated that the media continue to depict people with mental illness not only as criminals and a danger to themselves and to society, but also as lacking the cognitive and organizational capabilities necessary to get medical attention from community care options.
The discussion has also revealed that the media often use negative connotations when referring to people with mental illnesses, further isolating and stigmatizing them from mainstream society.
Indeed, the isolation and stigmatization of people with mental illness have been fronted as primary reasons why these people avoid seeking treatment options (Clayton et al 2009; Wahl 1992; Wahl 2003).
Additionally, the negative depiction of people with mental illnesses by the mainstream media has been found to negatively influence how society establishes social relationships with the affected and their family members.
The findings of this investigation and analysis are significant as they can be used by policy makers and other stakeholders in the media and in healthcare settings to come up with strategies that could check and discourage such negative media reporting of people with mental illnesses.
Although some of these strategies will be outlined in the following section, it is important to note that a rigorous effort aimed at improving media framing of mental challenges in Australia has been ongoing since 2002 with the view to not only expose cases of media stigma to public scrutiny but also to educate journalists and other stakeholders on how to sensitively and objectively report on issues of mental illness (Morgan & Jorm 2009; Henson et al 2010; Wahl 1992).
Such initiatives, according to these authors, include the Mindframe Media and Mental Health Project, StigmaWatch and beyondblue.
It is recommended that healthcare practitioners should partner with media owners in Australia and beyond to develop more initiatives that will, among other things:
- educate journalists on responsible reporting on cases of mental illness,
- create awareness and advocacy on mental illness through the content and advertisements aired on radio and television as well on the articles appearing in the print media,
- encourage people to shift their attitudes towards the mentally ill,
- increase the level of accurate information provided about mental illness in media presentations,
- encourage the mentally ill to seek professional assistance from healthcare providers.
Apart from these recommendations, the media should always be at the forefront in covering news stories about successful recoveries of people, who were previously suffering from mental illness, and also increase airing disclosures of mental challenges by renowned public figures.
Such disclosures, in my view, will greatly assist to counter the frequent media presentation and framing of mental illness. Lastly, the government should chip in to enhance community awareness campaigns with the view to reintegrate people with mental illness back into the mainstream society.
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