In our third and final post for the Media Coverage and Mental Health series, we explored how the news stigmatizes mental illness and misrepresents the vast majority of those who seek mental health care.

Most Americans had likely never heard of Sandy Hook or Aurora prior to the shootings that dominated the 24-hour news cycle in December of 2012. Now those places are forever linked with the violent acts that put them in the headlines, as are numerous other cities and towns where similarly horrific crimes have taken place. Those of us who watch or listen to the coverage are forever changed as well. Every act of violence we hear about makes us feel a little less safe.

News coverage of the events, as well as of the trials or the deaths of the perpetrators, raises many questions about mental health and the state of mental health treatment, but doesn’t further the discussion of what mental illness is and what it typically looks like. Rather than being productive in educating the public on the reality, reports of horrible crimes distort public perceptions, add to the stigma surrounding mental illness, and hide an important fundamental truth:

The vast majority of people suffering from mental illness are not dangerous. On the contrary, most quietly struggle while holding jobs, going to school, or raising children.

A study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health confirms this stigma. While the study focused on attitudes toward gun control policies, the lead author, Emma E. McGinty, M.S., stated, “…the public’s negative attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness are exacerbated by news media accounts of mass shootings involving a shooter with mental illness.” (Johns Hopkins, 2013)

Many misleading portrayals of mental illness are quite blatant, but some are simply offhand remarks. These more subtle mentions of mental illness can be equally destructive. Speculation that someone who committed a violent act was suffering from depression or a mood disorder links mental illness and even treatment of mental illness with violence. Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., writes, “Whether a graphic depiction or an insinuating remark, the media often paint a grim and inaccurate picture” that damages public perception and affects people with mental illness. She cites one study that found workers would prefer to say they spent time in jail for a petty crime than say they had been in a psychiatric hospital. (Tartakovsky, 2013)

The powerful stigma created by detailed coverage of violent acts actually deters people from accessing the care they need. In 2011, only 59.6% of individuals with mental illness (including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bi-polar disorder) reported receiving treatment. Stereotypical depictions in the news, movies, and television that portray people with mental illness as dangerous, unpredictable, responsible for their illness or incompetent can lead to active discrimination that excludes people with mental illness from employment, as well as educational and social opportunities. (Corrigan, Druss, & Perlick, 2014).

Research shows that when people with mental illness believe these myths and stereotypes, self-stigma can be an even greater deterrent to seeking treatment than the social stigma. A 2009 study from Leipzig University in Germany and a U.S. study of college students, published in Medical Care Research and Review, both identified self-stigma as a far greater influence than the expectation of discrimination in the decision to seek treatment. Self-stigma also causes people to withdraw from friends and family, and from activities they enjoy, which only worsens their condition, and can lead to self-medicating with alcohol or other substances. (Arenofsky, 2011)

Here are a few of the most common myths regularly portrayed in the media:

  • People with mental illness are violent and unpredictable. In fact, only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals with a serious mental illness and people with severe mental illness are over 10 times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the general population.
  • People with mental health issues can’t handle the stress of a job. Employers who hire people with mental health problems report attendance, motivation, work habits and tenure on par or greater than other employees.
  • Mental illness is a weakness or character flaw, and people should be able to get over it if they just try hard enough. Many factors contribute to mental health problems and many people who suffer from them need help to get better.
  • There is no hope for someone with mental health problems. People with mental health issues can get better. For many, recovery is possible, though it is an ongoing process that requires getting help.

(mentalhealth.gov, n.d.)

There is a glimmer of hope. Celebrities, politicians, and others have addressed misconceptions regarding mental health. Actress Jennifer Lawrence spoke out after winning an Oscar for her role in Silver Linings Playbook, a movie concerned with mental illness: “It’s just so bizarre how in this world if you have asthma, you take asthma medication. If you have diabetes, you take diabetes medication. But as soon as you have to take medicine for your mind, it’s such a stigma behind it.” President Obama’s comments at a White House conference on mental illness were even more pointed: “We’ve got to get rid of that embarrassment; we’ve got to get rid of that stigma.  Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are still suffering in silence rather than seeking help, and we need to see to it that men and women who would never hesitate to go see a doctor if they had a broken arm or came down with the flu, that they have that same attitude when it comes to their mental health.”

The reality is, however, that we cannot expect media coverage and misconceptions to change on their own. Melissa Thompson, CEO of Talk Session, Inc. offers these suggestions for how we all can improve mental health care and the perceptions surrounding mental illness.

  1. Support innovators who drive change.
    Vote for and fund politicians who pledge to end mental health disparity.
  2. Integrate mental health into daily life.
    Millions of Americans suffer with mental illness in some form. Talking openly about it, and taking an active role in our own mental wellness will help eliminate the stigma.
  3. Practice empathy.
    Make an effort to connect with people. Learn about others you wouldn’t normally engage. Really listen to people. Try to understand those you disagree with. And, don’t be afraid to open up about yourself.

(Thompson, 2013)

If you considered working with a therapist and ‘did not get around to it’ or ‘didn’t really need to’, take a moment to consider if this stigma was a factor in your decision. Did you wonder about mentioning therapy to friends or family? Question how you might be viewed if you did not keep it a secret? Wonder if you would feel foolish when you arrived? These are very common concerns, and sometimes they act as an obstacle to receiving care. Many clients report feeling these concerns quite acutely when they start therapy. As they work with their therapist and tell people about their work, it becomes apparent that so much of the stigma surrounding therapy is coming from our own assumptions. Many people are in fact very supportive, even if they seem like ‘they would not understand’. Beyond that, your health is more important than other people’s opinions of how you care for yourself. Beginning therapy facilitates an agreement of discretion bound by the law; therapists are legally compelled to protect your privacy. Just as seeing a doctor if you have a strange lump somewhere is a sound decision, talking to a therapist as you navigate difficulties in your life is never a bad idea. To meet with a Maria Droste Counseling Therapist, call Intake at 303-756-9052 or browse our therapist directory.

For the full series of posts in this topic, please see the links below:

How to Keep the Media from Increasing Your Stress: Three-Part Series
Part I – Media Coverage of Tragic Events
Part II – Sydney’s Story
Part III – Media Coverage and Mental Health Stigma

Sources:
Johns Hopkins (2013). Media Coverage of Mass Shootings Contributes to Negative Attitudes Towards Mental Illness. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Retrieved on September 6, 2015, from https://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2013/webster_mass_shootings_mental_illness.html

Tartakovsky, M. (2013). Media’s Damaging Depictions of Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 6, 2015, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/medias-damaging-depictions-of-mental-illness/

Corrigan, P.W., Druss, B.G., and Perlick, D.A. (2014) The Impact of Mental Illness Stigma on Seeking and Participating in Mental Health Care. Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved on September 6, 2015, from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/mental-illness-stigma.html

Arenofsky, J. (2011) Conquering the Stigma Within. Esperanza. Retrieved on September 7, 2015, from https://www.hopetocope.com/the-stigma-within-3/

MentalHealth.gov. (n.d.) Mental Illness Myths and Facts. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved on September 6, 2015, from https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/myths-facts/

Thompson, M. (2013) Let’s End the Stigma of Mental Illness. Huffington Post. Retrieved on September 7, 2015, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/melissa-thompson/lets-end-the-stigma-of-mental-illness_b_3522563.html