13 Reasons Why and Other Examples of Media's Portrayal of Mental Illnesses

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A man who suffers from Schizophrenia goes on a shooting spree in Times Square and later stabs a pregnant physician. These are the opening scenes from Wonderland, a series set in the psychiatric and emergency units of a New York City hospital. Premiering in 2000, the show was cancelled due to heavy criticism by mental health groups (Tartakovsky 2018). More often than not, the media portrays mental illness in a negative light, which, in turn, affects the way we view mental illness. In this extended response, I will be evaluating the media’s portrayal of mental illness and discussing how the portrayal of this group is often negative, stereotypical and exaggerated.

Unless you majored in psychology or attended medical school, chances are your knowledge about mental illness comes from the books and newspapers you read and the TV shows and movies you watch. In the recently-released movie , Split, a serial killer suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) kidnaps three teenage girls. The main issue with Split is that Dissociative Identity Disorder doesn’t work the way it does in the movie; it was exaggerated. Multiple medical professionals say that the film stigmatizes the disorder and may have a negative impact on those who have the condition (Fischer 2017). For example, Elizabeth Howell, a psychotherapist from New York, said the film raises the potential for dangerous attitudes to emerge and for people with the illness to be damaged. Colleagues who have seen the film said it is not an accurate portrayal of someone with DID, she told Healthline. “It is a disservice,” Howell said. “This is a common plot device. The serial murderer turns out to have DID. Why not have the plot be about a sociopath like Ted Bundy? Much more plausible.” Additionally, national mental health organization SANE has spoken out about Split, which trivializes complex mental illness and depicts people living with Dissociative Identity Disorder as violent villains. “One of the many stigmatising myths about people living with mental illness is they are dangerous. Both the media and film industry must take responsibility to ensure that depictions are more fair, accurate and balanced.” said Mr Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia. So while filmmakers intend to entertain their audience with phony portrayals, they are causing more harm than they think.

Another popular and recent release that has provoked viewers, concerned parents and mental health professionals is 13 reasons why. In the show, Hannah Baker decided to take her own life, as she has explained in the 13 audio tapes she has recorded. The show has been praised for shedding light and raising awareness about issues that many teenagers face such as bullying, sexual assault and addiction. And many believe the show demonstrates how we grieve and recover. On the contrary, many mental health professionals claim that the show is encouraging suicide instead of preventing it. They say that by seeing others committing suicide, vulnerable teens think that they can and should too, and the relatability of the show isn’t helping. As a result of heavy criticism, Netflix decided to equip viewers with resources (such as what to do when feeling suicidal and how to help others) to help make the shows’ impact a successful one. Whether 13 reasons why should be cancelled is a very controversial topic, and many argue that despite its flaws, 13 reasons why has a lot to bring to the table.

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An article published by The Sun in 2013 was headlined ‘1,200 killed by mental patients’. This, of course, caused a stir within the mental health community and received backlash from both the public and politicians (Hall 2016). In the article, mental patients were defined as those who a) have been in contact with mental health services in the prior 12 months to the incident or b) had symptoms of a mental illness. Chances are 90% of the ‘mental patients’ who were mentioned in the article had no relation to or traces of mental illness, but the journalists who wrote the article described the murderers as mental patients for journalism clickbait and to create controversy. Eventually, The Sun were forced to apologise but nevertheless, the misleading message will still be lingering in people’s’ minds.

As a result of the misrepresentation of mental illness in the media, stereotypes are formed. As mentioned earlier, Mentally ill individuals are seen as violent. This false stereotype has created unnecessary fear and uncomfort in the presence of mentally ill individuals. According to Cheryl K. Olson, co-director of the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, research suggests that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence (Tartakovsky 2018). Constant media linkage of violence and mental health leads to violence against the mentally ill rather than by them (Campbell 2013). Additionally, research suggests that mental illness doesn’t play a role in violent behaviour; factors such as substance abuse, history of violence, stressors (such as unemployment) and demographic variables (age, gender) play a role in violent behaviour (Elbogen & Johnson, 2009). Another illogical stereotype that caused people to avoid and discriminate against mentally ill individuals is that they look different. The messy hair, rumpled clothes, and wild eyes are the traits of mentally ill characters in TV shows, movies and even comics. These traits serve as visual identifiers to cast these characters – to tell them apart. And most of the time, these characters are threatening or evil. From these fabricated representations of mentally ill individuals, people begin to believe that they’re unhygienic, gross, smelly and many other unpleasant things.

Concluding this extended response, the media isn’t the friendliest and most accurate when it comes to portraying the whole concept of mental disorder. There are countless numbers of articles and movies that depict mentally ill individuals as crazy, aggressive, incompetent, threatening and insanitary. This, in reality, is rarely the case. As a result of their wrong representations, mentally ill individuals have become ashamed, uncomfortable and targeted for irrational purposes. I completely understand that TV shows, books and movies shouldn’t be taken seriously because they were produced for entertainment reasons, but I don’t think that mentally ill individuals – or anyone for that matter – should feel oppressed, unwanted and singled out just because of entertainment purposes. With one in four people around the world suffering from mental illness, it is crucial that we support them and not disdain them. You don’t need to look or act crazy like the characters in books, TV shows and movies to go through the difficulty of having a mental health issue. Most victims of mental illness go to work or school hiding their pain because of the stigma that is attached to their condition. It shouldn’t be this way. There are people out there that would benefit from therapy but don’t go because they think it’s for ‘crazy’ people – because that’s what they see on the media. As filmmakers over-dramatize mentally ill characters, they dehumanize the actual sufferers.

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13 Reasons Why and Other Examples of Media’s Portrayal of Mental Illnesses. (2023, March 14). WritingBros. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/13-reasons-why-and-other-examples-of-medias-portrayal-of-mental-illnesses/
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13 Reasons Why and Other Examples of Media’s Portrayal of Mental Illnesses. [online]. Available at: <https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/13-reasons-why-and-other-examples-of-medias-portrayal-of-mental-illnesses/> [Accessed 31 Mar. 2023].
13 Reasons Why and Other Examples of Media’s Portrayal of Mental Illnesses [Internet]. WritingBros. 2023 Mar 14 [cited 2023 Mar 31]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/13-reasons-why-and-other-examples-of-medias-portrayal-of-mental-illnesses/
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