Media Portrayal of Mental Illness in America Essay

This essay has a total of 4038 words and 15 pages.

Media Portrayal of Mental Illness in America

Media Portrayal of Mental Illness in America
The media in American society has a major influential impact on the minds and beliefs of
millions of people. Whether through the news, television shows, or film, the media acts as
a huge database for knowledge and instruction. It is both an auditory and visual database
that can press images and ideas into people's minds. Even if the individual has no prior
exposure or knowledge to something, the media can project into people's minds and leave a
lasting impression. Though obviously people are aware of what they are listening to or
watching, thoughts and assumptions can drift into their minds without even realizing it.
These thoughts that drift in are extremely influential. The massive impact it can leave on
America's perception leads to generalizations, assumptions, and stigmas. The media
influence is not always negative, however. In most cases it has beneficial and positive
aspects. Without the media, people would be drastically less informed and conscientious
about major issues in the world around us. In some cases, however, the way the media
portrays an issue can twist one's perception, leaving an assumption instead of a factual
concept. Mental illness is one of the biggest concepts that the media has distorted due to
the majority of portrayals the media presents. Mental health is extremely important and
plays a key role in every individual's life. Yet it is also has millions of
misconceptions. Mental illness is more common that one would like to believe. In reality,
one in five Americans will suffer from a mental disorder in any given year. Though that
ratio is about equivalent to more than fifty-four million people, mental illness still
remains a shameful and stigmatized topic (National Institute of Mental Health, n.d.). The
taboo of mental illness has an extensive and exhausting history, dating back to the
beginning of American colonization. It has not been an easy road to say the least. Due to
the endless efforts and research of certain foundations and individuals, the ideas and
functions of mental health have improved significantly. The advancements made in the field
are impressive and without them humankind would not be the same. Yet then why do only
fewer than eight million people who are in need of help seek treatment? (National Mental
Health Association, 2001). The history, stigmatization, and perception of mental illness
are some of the many reasons behind that alarming statistic.

The history of mental health and illness is extensive and dates back to the beginning of
the colonization of America. The mentally ill were cared for at home by their families
until the state recognized that it was a problem that was not going to go away. In
response, the state built asylums. These asylums were horrendous; people were chained in
basements and treated with cruelty. Though it was the asylums that were to blame for the
inhumane treatment of the patients, it was perceived that the mentally ill were untamed
crazy beasts that needed to be isolated and dealt with accordingly. In the opinion of the
average citizen, the mentally ill only had themselves to blame (Surgeon General's Report
on Mental Health, 1999). Unfortunately, that view has haunted society and left a lasting
impression on the minds of Americans. In the era of "moral treatment", that view was
repetitively attempted to be altered. Asylums became "mental hospitals" in hope of driving
away the stigma yet nothing really changed. They still were built for the untreatable
chronic patients and due to the extensive stay and seemingly failed treatments of many of
the patients, the rest of the society believed that once you went away, you were gone for
good. Then the era of "mental hygiene" began late in the nineteenth century. This combined
new concepts of public health, scientific medicine, and social awareness. Yet despite
these advancements, another change had to be made. The era was called "community mental
health" and continued until 1975. In the beginning the main focus was
deinstitutionalization in hopes of connecting the mentally ill to the rest of the world.
This advocated knowledge, education, and social support in hopes of erasing the
stereotypes of mental illness that was installed in society from the beginning. Also, this
led to the final reform movement, which began in 1975 and still continues today. This
"community support" era views mental illness in terms of social welfare. Some problems
include education, employment, housing, and governmental assistance (Surgeon General's
Report on Mental Health, as cited in Morrison and Goldman, 1984).

Table 2-10. Historical reform movements in mental health treatment in the United States
Reform movement Era Setting Focus of Reform
Moral Treatment 1800-1850 Asylum Humane, restorative treatment
Mental Hygiene 1890-1920 Mental hospital or clinic Prevention, scientific orientation
Community Mental Health 1955-1970 Community mental health center Deinstitutionalization, social integration
Community Support 1975-present Community support Mental illness as a social
welfare problem (e.g., housing, employment)

Sources: Morrissey & Goldman, 1984; Goldman & Morrissey, 1985.

In addition to the historical aspect, confusion about mental health is another reason
leading to the perception of the mentally ill. The Surgeon General's Report on Mental
Health, (1999), dispels any confusion by making detailed analogies and information. Mental
health and mental illness are not opposites; they are like two points on a continuum. The
value of mental health is indescribable; it is what makes a person who they really are.
Mental health involves mental function resulting in successful productive behavior and is
the key to healthy relationships with other people. Mental health is the underlying
backbone of growth, self-esteem, emotional well being, and communication. Mental illness
refers to diagnosable mental disorders. Impaired functioning and personal distress are the
result of the alterations in mood, behavior, and cognitive skills that mental illness
creates. People tend to see mental illness as something separate and incomparable to
themselves because they do not understand the concepts that mental health pertains to.
Those who have no experience with mental illness tend to believe that mental illness is so
far from mental health, which can result in stigmas. These misconceptions of the basic
structure of one's self lead people to isolate themselves from the problem of mental
illness. The media uses these misconceptions and lack of knowledge in the sense that
rarely are connections made between "normal people and crazy people". They are seen as
complete opposites, when despite the obvious differences, mental illness can happen to
anyone at anytime.

Another reason media portrayal plays a major role in perception of mental illness is due
to stigmatization. This leads people to distrust, biases, stereotypes, and fear. As a
result of it people avoid such situations where contact could occur (Corrigan & Penn,
1999). This response leads to people not wanting to be in the same category as the "crazy
people" and thus not receiving treatment if they felt they really needed it. In the media
people with mental illness are viewed as crazy and violent. In reality though over ninety
percent of mentally ill people are not a risk to the community. There are more instances
of violence involving those in the community without mental illness. When there are cases
where violence is involved, more than two-thirds of the cases involve verbal assault. The
chances of a serious injury are very slim (Mental Health Organization, n.d.).

Despite the history and stigmatization surrounding mental illness, perception of the
mentally ill has changed in some ways in the past few decades. Back in the 1950's, people
saw mental illness as an unidentifiable and confusing concept. The public was uneducated
and unaware of the truth of mental illness. Surveys and studies show that back then people
could not differentiate between normal lows and diagnosable symptoms; this was due to lack
of knowledge and the social stigma surrounding disorders. In the late nineties more
studies were conducted that showed that the general public were now able to correctly
define mental illness. Though the definition was extended to include several disorders,
perceptions of the mentally ill changed according to the diagnosis of the disorder. Though
some things had changed, the social stigma appears to still be with us (Star, 1952, 1955,
Gurin et al., 1960, Veroff et al., 1981, Swindle et al., 1997).

Media portrayal has influenced all factors involved with the public definition of mental
illness. In some cases it is beneficial, for it at least makes people aware of mental
illness instead of ignoring the problem by isolation, as it was done in the beginning.
Studies show that at least seventy percent of Americans have seen or heard about some
aspect of mental illness in the news in the past six months (National Mental Health
Association, 2000). Yet in most cases it affects the awareness aspect negatively. A series
of surveys found that selective media reporting reinforced the public's stereotypes
regarding the association of violence and mental illness. It encourages people to distance
themselves from mental illness and those with it (Angermeyer & Matschinger, 1996).

Media portrayal influences are strong in news, television, and film. For this class I have
seen many films featuring a character with mental illness. I believe that those portrayals
influence the perception of mental illness very strongly, especially when the viewer does
not have much education about the issue. The images they see leave a lasting imprint on
the minds of Americans. The first movie I viewed was "Girl, Interrupted". In this film
there are two main characters that have borderline personality disorder and antisocial
personality disorder. The film takes place in a mental hospital. The ward is depicted as a
friendly and comforting atmosphere that does have its ups and downs but is generally a
home like atmosphere. The characters are depicted somewhat correctly; the only
discrepancies found where in some of the symptoms surrounding the two disorders. The main
character Susanna was supposed to have borderline personality disorder. However, I found
that she was not a realistic borderline. She did not seem to have any emotion towards her
situation or anyone in her life. A true borderline waves back and forth with how she feels
about many of the people in her life. If anything, Susanna was depressed. The other main
character, Lisa, was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. She was my favorite
character in the film; she portrayed her disorder perfectly. The second film I viewed was
"What About Bob?" The character Bob had multi-phobic personality disorder with acute
separation anxiety. This film was a comedy, so the symptoms and the possible severe
consequences were downplayed to keep the movie light. Despite that fact, the character was
accurately portrayed in the sense that it showed his compulsiveness symptoms such as
wiping off door handles and other publicly used objects with a napkin that he always
carries with him. One of the first scenes was about Bob having to conquer his fear of
riding on a bus. He got on the bus, and then got off it, then on, etc… He followed his
new psychiatrist and his family to their summer vacation home because he could not deal
with the thought of not having him near. The psychiatrist gets more and more fed up and
just wants Bob to leave him alone. But his family feels the exact opposite. There was one
scene I did not think followed the disorder. Bob and the psychiatrist's son go out to the
diving dock by the lake and the boy is scared to swim. Bob is as well. It terrifies him.
They end up both going in together, which I believe would have taken more coaxing and time
by the diving dock. The movie "As Good As It Gets" tells the story of a man with
obsessive-compulsive disorder and the relationships he has with a waitress and his
neighbor. This movie was an accurate portrayal of the disorder. Melvin, the main
character, eats at the same restaurant with the same waitress at the same table and orders
the same meal (with slight variations) everyday. He brings his own plastic silverware and
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  • The Importance of Setting in a Short Story2
    The Importance of Setting in a Short Story2 The Importance of Setting Setting is the psychological time or place in a story. Setting plays an important role in the success of stories. Three examples of this importance can be explained through “To Build a Fire” by Jack London and “The Cask of the Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe and “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty. The settings used in these stories set the reader’s mood. A good writer’s depiction of setting puts the reader right into the story. “To
  • The Scarlet Letter2
    The Scarlet Letter2 The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is considered to be one of the greatest examples of true American literature. Its excellency of topic, characterization, and description has made it a permanent part of our history. Set in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600s, it describes the life of Hester Prynne, a Puritan woman whose existence is marred by sin. The real genius of the book is found in its description. Hawthorne makes allusion, symbolism, and romanticism work
  • The Yellow Wallpaper4
    The Yellow Wallpaper4 "The Yellow Wallpaper" Throughout history people have always seemed to follow what notions that were considered cool. Though I doubt that cool was the word used to describe these notions they were still there in some form or another. One of the greatest farces ever committed in the name of these popular perceptions was medicine. At that time, medicine that was on the cutting edge seem to have always involved some sort of noxious chemical or a typically atrocious diet. N
  • Toys in the hands of an ego tripped boy
    toys in the hands of an ego tripped boy Little Toys in the Hands of an Ego Tripped god Well, let me introduce myself; my name is Chris Rodgers and as a child I was rather cleaver and many times extremely squirrelly. Because of that my childhood was even more interesting than most children’s. Many of the toys that characterized my essence when I was in the preteen years were the vintage models of the incredible G.I. Joes, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Matchbox Cars, and Cabbage Patch Dolls (a
  • Transendentalism through Franklin Emerson and Thor
    Transendentalism through Franklin Emerson and Thoreau Daniel Higgins September13, 2000 ENG 252 – Paper 1 Transcending Life by Adapting the Concepts of Franklin, Emerson, and Thoreau Everyone one of us struggles daily to survive in a manner befitting our individual beliefs, hopes, aspirations, dreams, and goals. There is not a universal code on how exactly we should go about doing this. Benjamin Franklin, Henry Thoreau, and Waldo Emerson were some of the most unique thinkers influencing the way o
  • Ethics of Cloning
    Ethics of Cloning Running head: Downside of Cloning The Ethical Downside of Cloning Ethics in Health Care October 17, 1998 Introduction For the first time the cloning of a whole human being seems really possible. It is absolutely necessary to consider the harm that can be done and move to curb abuses. Also, it is important to understand some of the theory underlying the desire to build a better human. The Ethical Downside of Cloning With recent developments in the cloning of the first whole mamm