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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Media portrayal of mental illness does more harm than good

Poster for “Split,” starring James McAvoy. The movie is about a kidnapper that has 24 different personalities. PUBLIC DOMAIN

For a long time, people with mental illnesses have been misrepresented in the media. Movies often portray people with mental illnesses in a way that fails to emphasize that they are people too and should not be ostracized.

People with mental illnesses are often depicted as the “psycho killer” with multiple personalities, like in the movie, “Split”—  a movie about a kidnapper who has 24 different personalities. They also tend to be over-glorified — almost sexualized — like in “Girl Interrupted,” a movie about a group of pretty female patients at a mental hospital. The stereotype that people with mental illnesses are violent is reinforced in the film, “Psycho“, a thriller about a mentally ill murderer who mirrors the personality of his mother.

In a recent study by the American Association for Public Opinion Research about the public perception of the “criminally insane,” 61% of the public surveyed responded that they feared former mentally disordered offenders “a lot.”

However, a study by the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide (NCISH) by People with Mental Illness found that only 5% of the homicides carried out in the general population between 2001 and 2011 were by those with an abnormal mental state. This signifies that people are falsely diagnosing a parallel between danger and mental illness by depicting that they are related.

It is the responsibility of movies and media today to decrease this stigma that people with mental illness are dangerous. Professor and Chair of Mass Communications at the University of North Carolina–Asheville, Don Diefenbach, researches media portrayals of mental health issues. He discovered that characters who were identified through behavior or labeled as having a mental illness were 10 times more likely than other TV characters to commit a violent crime.

The fact that mental illness in movies does not reflect the actual statistics highlight the notion that the media is simply spreading false ideas about what it means to live with mental illness.  Movies and television shows further exclude people with mental illness and by doing so, make them increasingly less likely to seek help.

I took a psychology class at Stony Brook where I learned about borderline personality disorder. My professor gave an example of someone with this disorder — a woman who killed her husband. I felt that this was an unjust representation of what it is like to live with a borderline personality disorder.

One of my best friends has borderline personality disorder and she is a regular person who does not have any desire to harm anybody. In fact, people with mental illnesses are much more likely to self-harm than to harm others.

Generalizing and putting all of the different spectrums of borderline personality disorder into one box can severely impact the mental health of the person involved and validate the idea mentally ill people are menaces to society.

False depictions of mental illness have a profound negative effect on people suffering from them. Portraying the mentally ill as overly violent and stereotyping them as being insane criminals can cause them to validate their fear and shame of their mental state. Over-glorifying, however, has the opposite effect and paints an overly optimistic generalization of people with mental illness. This has the opportunity to cause people, especially teenagers, to believe that it is “cool” to have a mental illness and see it as something to be attracted to instead of something to cure.

Movies need to improve their renditions of people with mental illness by showing that normal people, not just criminals and attractive girls, suffer from them. By doing this, mental illness will become more normalized and allow the public to be more open about seeking help instead of feeling ostracized and underrepresented. It is the responsibility of the media to highlight the possibility of improvement instead of painting people with mental illnesses as “the other.” Maybe then, we can become a more compassionate community who understand the needs of others and ultimately, save lives.

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