Mental Illness in Media is Driving Me Mad: Discourse on the Negative Representation of the Mentally Ill in the U.S.A.

Mental Illness in Media is Driving Me Mad: Discourse on the Negative Representation of the Mentally Ill in the U.S.A.

If you have schizophrenia you are dangerous. If you have bipolar disorder you are insane. If you have multiple personality disorder you are a liar. If you have major depression you are overreacting. The lack of understanding in the U.S. in regards to mental illness leads to extreme views of the mentally ill, as the ones above. One must ask how these perceptions came to be and why have they been perpetuated, as “in 2012, there were an estimated 43.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. with [a mental illness] in the past year” (National). This stigma of mental illness can be greatly attributed to the portrayal of the mentally ill and society’s continued bolstering of those negative views, which are detrimental and toxic.

The stigma against the mentally ill has long been ingrained in the society of the United States, dating back to Anglo-American traditions prior to the 1700s (Gamwell and Tomes). These stigmas were derived from the single media source of the time: Christianity. Gamwell and Tomes state that, “following biblical tradition, colonists traced the religious cause of all disease, including madness, to the Old Testament story of the original sin of Adam and Eve.” (15) The significance of this tradition is that those who are diseased are considered unholy or sinuous as the basis for their disease comes from the first and original sin of Adam and Eve. Because of this belief, the idea that those who are mentally are evil, or in some way dangerous to others has prevailed. These beliefs became so outrageous that,”colonists also believed that Satan sent devils to enter people’s bodies and literally possess their minds.” (Gamwell and Tomes 15) To reiterate: the most feared being in Judeo-Christian beliefs, Lucifer, literally sends demons into the minds of the mentally ill to make them the way they are. As a result, those who were mentally ill at that time were seen as incarnates of evil, which feeds into Modern America’s perception of the mentally ill today.

Even when medicine advanced the mentally ill were still treated as second class citizens. In Gerald N. Grob’s Mental Illness and American Society, 1875-1940, Grob explains that “by focusing upon mental disease as an abstraction, psychiatrists for the most part either ignored or else lost sight of their institutionalized patients and the realities of their world. Patients became, in effect, virtually invisible entities.” (179) The disturbing part about this is that the mentally ill are once again being dehumanized. It began in the early era of American colonists and has been passed down to after World War II, when the mental health treatments were becoming more developed. The media which had first introduced this perception in the pre-1700s continued to hold influence centuries later. With these ideas now ingrained in American Culture’s psyche they are reinforced through media, which leads to the poor treatment of those who are mentally ill.

The mentally ill are also made to be social outcasts. The stigma around mental illness causes those with a mental illness to be cast from society, or in the very least treated with ill will towards them. Data presented in Stigma: Alive and Well demonstrate this clearly, “68 percent of Americans do not want someone with a mental illness marrying into their family and 58 percent do not want people with mental illness in their workplaces.”(Dingfelder) The workplace and the family are one of the few places where individuals spend their most time, so with more than half of the populous claiming that they do not want people with mental illness in the places where they spend their most time speaks volumes on societies view on the mentally ill. From my own personal experiences with mental illness I find that I am often being socially excluded. I suffer from Panic Disorder and Major depression. There was a time in my life where I was manic-depressive, because of my mental illness. During that time I was seen as unstable and it was made clear to me by others that this was my fault. My peers avoided me and stepped lightly around me like I was an explosive ready to go off. It was as though they thought I would physically harm them, while in reality I was more of a danger to myself, contemplating suicide, than anyone else. Even when I began my treatment my family infantilized me. They treated me delicately, and I felt as though I was no longer a person, but rather I was my mental illness. People treated me as though that was all I was defined by. It is obvious to say that being treated in a way that alienates you because of something that is out of your control is unpleasant. Though, this issue goes beyond simple person to person relations, as it affects a massive group of people, and causes extrinsic negative consequences, such as violence against the mentally ill, treatment of the mentally ill as incapable, and loss of opportunities both educational and work related.

American Society continues to view the mentally ill as violent, which is far more dangerous to the mentally ill than the mentally ill are dangerous to others. The newspapers are largely a part of this issue. 50% of Newspaper articles in the USA about mental illness mention violence, while 34% mention criminal activity (Dingfelder). Mental illness is only being talked about in the context of tragedy and violence. The media often blames the criminal actions of an individual as them being mentally deficient in some way. As Patrick Corrigan says in Stigma: Alive and Well, “Every time something really bad happens, people think it must be because of mental illness. If a woman drowns her children, people speculate—the news media speculates—that she must be off her medication.” Corrigan Acknowledges that the issue here stems from speculation of the high powered media. When beliefs are based purely on speculation rather than hard facts and logic these beliefs are bound to be flawed in some way. In this case they are flawed in that these beliefs equate crime to the neurodivergent. Once this connection is made stigmatism is formed, and this is when unjust actions are taken upon individuals who cannot help their mental illness. For example, the killing of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill African American man, exemplifies the dangers of equating mental illness to criminal intentions. Ezell Ford was killed by two Los Angeles Police Department officers despite there being no probable cause for the use of force when apprehending Ford. In addition to this, officers were even told by neighbors that Ford suffered from mental problems. (Ezell Ford). This is called crime victimization, meaning that those who are mentally atypical are victims of violent crimes, as they are perceived to be criminal themselves. Though, according to “Crime Victimization in Adults With Severe Mental Illness”, “More than one quarter of persons with [severe mental illness] had been victims of a violent crime in the past year, a rate more than 11 times higher than the general population rates.” (Teplin et al.) In other words, those who are perceived as the violent are statistically more likely to be the victims of violent crimes. This is a clear identifier that there is something inherently wrong with the connotation that the mentally ill are dangerous, especially when they are the ones who are in the most danger.

The mentally ill are seen as incapable of self care. Due to the nature of certain mental illnesses the mentally ill are seen as incapable of fending for themselves or making their own life choices. This can easily be seen in the type of care facilities which are offered to the mentally ill. Erving Goffman in Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates makes the point of saying, “The total institutions disrupt or defile precisely those action that in civil society have the role of attesting to the actor and those in his presence that he has some command over his world –that he is a person with ‘adult’ self-determination, autonomy, and freedom of action.” (43) In other words, Goffman is stating that the asylums take away the sense that one is an adult who can make decisions on their own. The asylum system makes those within have no sense of autonomy. Goffman later says that, “A failure to retain this kind of adult executive competency, or at least symbols of it, can produce in the inmate the terror of feeling radically demoted in the age-grading system.”(43) Goffman’s point is that this lack of control over one’s own life takes a critical blow to one’s self worth, as they are feeling as though they are a child despite the fact that they may be fully functioning adults. The social stigma that present the mentally divergent as incapable leads to situations as Goffman has described. When the media presents the mentally ill as being incapable on their own, the medical world molds the treatment for the mentally ill around that belief. Not only are they not getting the care that would be best for them, but the whole medical world is putting into practice the treatments that will do more harm than good. This causes more mental strain on the patients creating more harm than good. A cycle has been established- treatment is inadequate thus creating more issue which is solved with more inadequate treatment. Overall this practice is far more detrimental than it is helpful.

In hand with the issue of treating the mentally ill as incapable is the fact that once a person is found to be mentally ill they are excluded from certain educational and career based opportunities. The mentally ill are discriminated against because of the negative connotation surrounding them. Thus, people are cut off from certain opportunities. They cannot possibly achieve greatness as they are weighted down by a mental illness, right?.Wrong. Elyn Saks in her TED Talk “A tale of mental illness — from the inside” discusses her own issue regarding her mental illness, Schizophrenia; her career as a Mental Health Law scholar; and her own combat against those who felt she was not capable- including herself, “I felt that if I could manage without medication, I could prove that, after all, I wasn’t really mentally ill, it was some terrible mistake. My motto was the less medicine, the less defective.” (Saks) In the quote Saks feels as though her mental illness makes her less capable and that if she could just prove to herself that she is not mentally ill everything would be fine, that she could be successful. It becomes apparent that not only does the public have negative stigmas about mental illness, but those with mental illness hold these negative beliefs as well, which often feed their mental illness. Saks is mentally ill; there is no way to change that, yet she is still highly successful in her career and has proven herself a force to be reckoned with. Saks in herself proves that the idea that those who are mentally ill are cannot possibly be of import is incorrect. Those with mental illness have just as much potential as those without. This stigma is the most toxic as it takes away the potential of individuals. It strips them down until they are nothing but their disease, and does not allow them to attempt something greater than themselves. Instead they are told that they are incapable because of something out of their control. As Saks says herself, “Everything about this illness says I shouldn’t be here, but I am.” Individuals should not be defined by their illness as it stunts their potential, which as a whole detract from the state of humanity, which may improve through the work of the mentally ill.

The stigma against mental illness is a strong one. It takes much away from the individuals who are neurotypically divergent. Their ability to care for themselves and make their own decisions, their place in society, their innocence, their safety, and their potential are all forcibly taken away from them by a society which knows not what it thinks. The ideas that the mentally ill are dangerous or incapable are incorrect, as they are based on old traditions and reinforced through the ages of society. They come from old superstitions created in the 1700s are still widely believed now. Obviously this is an issue that should be dealt with, but it is not. Instead mental illness is seen as something that should not be discussed openly, because of what it entails. Though, when this is done there can be no improvement of our society just continued degradation. This is especially true when the stereotypes which cause so much damage are continued to be spread and believed in media. Media’s spread of misinformation and beliefs which are toxic is that which is most damaging to the mentally ill.


Works Cited

Dingfelder, Sadie F. “Stigma: Alive and Well.” Monitor on Psychology 40.6 (2009): 56. Web. 11 May 2015.

Gamwell, Lynn and Nancy Tomes. Madness in America: Cultural and Medical Perceptions of Mental Illness before 1914. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. Print.

Goffman, Erving. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1961. Print.

Grob, Gerals N. Mental Illness and American Society, 1875-1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983. Print.

Johnson, Thomas. “Ezell Ford: The mentally ill black man killed by the LAPD two days after Michael Brown’s death.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 15 August 2014. Web. 11 May 2015.

National Institution of Mental Health. National Institutes of Health. Web. 11 May 2015.

Teplin, Linda A., Gary M. McClelland, Karen M. Abram, and Dana A. Weiner. “Crime Victimization in Adults With Severe Mental Illness: Comparison With the National Crime Victimization Survey.” Arch Gen Psychiatry 62.8 (2005): 911-921. Web. 11 May 2015.

Saks, Elyn. “A tale of mental illness — from the inside” TED Conferences. TEDGlobal 2012. June 2012. Lecture.

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