Mental Health Through the Media Lens

Smitii Nayak

Edited by Brooke Thimmig

When 13 Reasons Why was released, the TV show was the talk of the town with a viewership of at least 5 million. Based on a book about a teenage high school student who suffered from depression and took her own life, the show made headlines for all the wrong reasons. While attempting to bring more awareness towards depression and mental health, the show was only successful in glamorizing depression and suicide. In fact, there was actually an increase in the number of online searches for ‘how to commit suicide’ following the show’s release.

Yet, 13 Reasons Why was definitely an upgrade from the way mental health has been portrayed throughout the media in the past. The show at least aimed to make people more conscious towards those suffering from mental illnesses, and it demonstrated the devastating impact that suicide has on a community. Standard media usually does the exact opposite of this by creating a very dreary and taboo image of mental health issues which skew audience members towards stigmatizing and trivializing them.

Media platforms today play a vital role in shaping public opinion and most people’s negative image of mental illness. This is because of a trend of incorrect, one-sided, biased, and bigoted representation of mental health by nearly all forms of the media, from films to newspapers to social networking sites. To date, mental health patients have been written off as damaged individuals, and in a way, inferior to others. The media has painted social stigma all over them by showing them as tainted people who are outcasts and not the same as ‘normal’ people.

When covering mental health issues, the media has presented people suffering from mental illnesses like schizophrenia as dangerous humans who must be isolated from others. Rather than focusing on the illness itself, they focus on the individual as an abnormal entity while deeming their symptomatic and behavioural tendencies as deliberate and ‘scary’ or ‘crazy.’ Naturally, viewers of such content tend to assign the blame to the person for their illness. In the end, the victim is criticized for what is actually out of their control.

A very common characteristic in the media’s portrayal is the generalization that each and every person with a particular mental illness behaves the same way. Those suffering from depression always have suicidal tendencies, and everyone with schizophrenia hallucinates. The illnesses also never seem to have any treatment and are ‘unrecoverable from’, while in reality, support can be always be provided and a helping hand can be lent to aid mentally ill people in getting back to full health.

Mental health is also presented as less important than physical health and isn’t given the concern it deserves, and the media doesn’t do much to assist with this harmful perception. Time and again, the importance of maintaining good mental health is trivialized and isn’t shown to its full severity. The consequences are hidden and the gravity of the situation is buried under the simplicity with which mental health problems are exhibited by the media distributors.

People with anorexia, an eating disorder that has a higher death rate than any other, feel like their condition is made to seem hardly half as serious as it really is. Those suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are simply shown as perfectionists often leaving their obsessive natures that drive these compulsions unnoticed.

The key takeaway from all of this is that the media overlooks these problems that are actual, clinically diagnosed illnesses and should instead, provide proper coverage and realistic portrayals of mental health in order to correctly educate media consumers. The media needs to learn how to present mental health illnesses accurately with the help of mental health professionals, such as specialists and psychiatrists. It is through the spread of complete awareness that people will understand the importance of mental health and the brutality of these illnesses that have the ability to severely cripple people. With knowledge and understanding, we can help those suffering, protect them from judgemental eyes, and get them on the road to recovery.