By Michael Rodriguez
Sophie Glass, a Junior at the College of New Jersey, had her breaking point in her Sophomore year in college. As a child, she was constantly fearing the stigmatization because of her mental illness, even she learned that she “needed to get my life together.” She eventually reached a breaking point, having to drop out for a semester in order to receive treatment in an Intensive Outpatient Program.
“I never use to talk to anyone about it,” She said, “only my close friends and family knew.”
Sophie suffers from Major Depressive Disorder and an Anxiety Disorder, very common place mental illnesses that are widely known and treated. However, because it so widely talked about, that does not mean that stigmatization around those mental issues are not present.
Stigmatization around mental illness has always been a major part of any society, as mental health issues are often associated with negative stereotypes.
However, these negative stereotypes and stigma are created and mass marketed through one large service – news media.
Facts Versus Reality
Not all people who suffer from mental illnesses are not insane, but actually can receive professional help in order to live with their mental conditions. In fact, mental disorders are quite common among populations in countries around the world, with around 20-25% of each population having individuals who suffer from mental disorders as a result of “traumatic stress” (Klin Page 435). However, studies and surveys continue to show that various communities continue to discriminate those with mental illnesses.
These studies are unable to determine a specific reason for the stigmatization of mental illnesses, but a theory about the role of news media is possibly the largest contributor to public perception.
Otto F. Wahl from George Mason University’s recent study focused on public perception of mental health, and how the news media are directly involved in creating the negative stereotypes that fuel both public and self-stigmatization. Wahl writes that “mental health attitudes are influenced by mass media sources” because they are the organizations that have provided the most coverage on topics of mental health, most of which is almost all “unfavorable and inaccurate” (Wahl Page 343). Wahl cites that mental health is a very prominent topic in all forms of media, especially television, film, and news broadcasts, that can have a major effect on public opinion (Wahl Pages 344-345). By broadening the number of mediums used to explore mental health, misunderstandings and falsehoods are more likely to appear.
Misconceptions are born from the news media’s attempt at covering mental health issues, and their continued bias of depicting the extreme as the norm. Klin and Lemish’s data states that whenever news outlets cover mental illnesses, they focus on “a violent sub group” that represents the larger whole (Klin Page 438). For example, if someone has a major depressive disorder, news media will portray them as self-destructive individuals who are a danger to themselves.
However, not all individuals who suffer from Major Depressive Disorders are self-destructive, but the portrayal of that mental illness will allow news audiences to believe in the extreme.
Kathleen Zarro, a Senior Communications Major at the College of New Jersey has researched mental issues in her own family and on the college campus as well. She claims that while mental health issues are a major problem within various communities, only the extreme cases, such as suicide, are ever discussed.
“The only time people seem to care about mental health is when there is a mass shooting,” Kathleen said bluntly, “It’s horrible.”
By focusing on the extreme cases of mental disorders, news outlets only allows for the stigmatization of mental health issues and pave the way for discrimination, isolation, and even self-destruction of the suffering individual. The individual believes their condition/illness is a part of the extreme, when in fact that is highly inaccurate. Mental illnesses affect every individual differently, and generalizing mental health condition under the same “umbrella terminology” or “under the same conditions” is an academic and Journalistic failing on the part of media outlet’s integrity.
Since news outlets have the largest impact on public opinion, many audiences of various news outlets will often come to share the same views. Mass media and news outlets often portray people with mental illnesses “unfavorably,” depicting them as “inadequate, unlikeable, and dangerous” to those around them (Wahl Page 345).
Mass media’s role in the spread of the issue of mental health cannot be ignored, but the stigmatization of mental health issues or those with mental health conditions will become more common.
Once stigmas are established and reinforced by mass media outlets, the stigmas soon become the societal norm. Corrigan’s article states that in news media there exists a “bias toward the presentation of severe, psychotic disorders” as a large representation of all mental health conditions (Wahl Page 345). However, once the audience believes what the media says, it is likely that those around individuals suffering from mental illnesses will come to believe the falsehoods or misconceptions as well.
Public misconceptions and stigmatizations of mental illnesses will always lead to some form of condemnation or discrimination. In Patrick Corrigan, Fred E. Markowitz, Amy Watson, David Rowan and Mary Ann Kubiak’s study An Attribution Model of Public Discrimination Towards Persons with Mental Illness, the authors state that mental illnesses result in “discrimination and social rejection” as a result of seeming “not normal” to the average “normal” person (Corrigan et. al Page 163). These stereotypes lead to two separate, but equally impactful types of stigmatization – public stigma and self-stigma.
“It took forever for me to talk,” Sophie stated, “even when in the presence of a counselor or a support group, I couldn’t bring myself to share my experience.”
Although seemingly separate, these two types of stigmas are integral to the discrimination against mental illness. Public stigma refers to the public discrimination or rejection of the individual based on the stereotypes of their specific mental illness, while Self-Stigma is the rejection of one’s own identity and mental illness based on stereotypes the public stigma creates. The discrimination that comes from both self and public discrimination is “active avoidance” of the issue, and that ignorance can have an effect on individuals with mental health conditions (Corrigan et. al Pages 163-164).
The way these two types of stigma affect an individual suffering from a mental health issue is created by the atmosphere surrounding that individual. The stigmatization of mental health through the media will also lead to an issue of those suffering from mental illnesses refusing to seek help, which causes more harm to the victim of discrimination and possibly the public as well.
“Stigmatization paints a picture that people with mental illnesses are going to do something violent,” Kathleen sighted, “but that’s not always the case.”
Both public and self-discrimination cause the victim to encounter more stressors that exacerbate their conditions, which is why there is a decreasing number of individuals reporting their conditions and seeking help. According to Anat Klin and Dafna Lemish’s article Mental Disorders Stigma in the Media: Review of Studies on Production, Content, and Influences, the “low percentage of persons suffering from Mental Disorders who seek professional assistance” is affected by the individual’s “fear of stigmas and their negative consequences” (Klin Page 434). The the individual’s mental illness creates their own self-stigma is a direct result of the news media’s portrayal of their condition, influencing how the individual views themselves.
There is no easy solution to on how to reduce the stigmatization of mental health, as the news media has a very large hand in what information is shared with the public. However, education appears to be our best chance at reducing the stigma.
“Getting others on board is essential,” Kathleen stated, “Different people suffer from different mental illnesses. We need to respect those differences. But we also need to include EVERYONE in the conversation.”
For more information on mental health and the stigmatization surrounding it, here on some links provided on the subject:
Corrigan, Patrick, et al. “An Attribution Model of Public Discrimination Towards
Persons with Mental Illness.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 44, no. 2, 2003, pp. 162–179. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1519806.
Klin, Anat, and Dafna Lemish. “Mental Disorders Stigma in the Media: Review of Studies on Production, Content, and Influences.” Taylor & Francis, Taylor & Francis Online, 28 July 2008, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10810730802198813.
Wahl, Otto F. “Mass Media Images of Mental Illness: A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 20, no. 4, Oct. 1992, pp. 343-352. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspxdirect=true&db=aph&AN=11988979&site=ehost-live.