How the Stigma of Mental Health Is Spread by Mass Media

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In the aftermath of an unconscionable act of random violence, many people are inclined to label the perpetrator “crazy.” Although the criminal may have a mental illness, automatically assigning the label “crazy” does a great disservice to people who live with mental illness every day.

In reality, somebody with mental illness is much more likely to be a victim—rather than a perpetrator—of violence. Calling a violent offender “crazy” spreads a dangerous stereotype and belies the complex relationship between criminality and mental illness.

The media teaches us about people with whom we do not routinely interact. This constant flow of data gives us incessant social cues about the nature of other groups of people—including which groups of people should be praised or scorned.

Media portrayals of those with mental illness often skew toward either stigmatization or trivialization. Consequently, all forms of media—including television, film, magazines, newspapers, and social media—have been criticized for disseminating negative stereotypes and inaccurate descriptions of those with mental illness.

What Is Stigmatization?

Stigma involves negative beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors directed toward people based on some distinguishing characteristics. In the case of mental health stigma, it involves the presence of mental health symptoms or a mental health diagnosis.

In other cases, stigma can also involve health conditions, disabilities, gender, race, sexuality, culture, religion, and sexuality.

Stigma happens when some person is viewed as an “other.” A person considered an "other" is denied full social acceptance.

The impact of mental health stigma is serious. Evidence suggests that it is linked to worse mental health outcomes because it reduces the likelihood that a person will seek help, receive adequate care, and adhere to their treatment plan.

Stigmatization of Mental Illness By the Media

Stigmatization of mental illness in media is abundant. For example, certain mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia are seen as being so disruptive that people with those conditions must be isolated from society.

The stigmatization of mental illness is so entwined with the media that researchers have used newspaper articles as a proxy metric for stigma in society.

Media accounts tend to focus on the individual with mental illness rather than framing mental illness as a societal issue. Consequently, media consumers are more likely to blame an individual for the illness.

Mental Illness Is Overgeneralized

People with mental illness can also suffer from overgeneralization in media portrayals. Every person with a specific mental health condition is expected to display the same characteristics or symptoms.

For instance, common depictions are that all people with depression are suicidal, and all people with schizophrenia hallucinate. In reality, 60% and 80% of people with schizophrenia experience auditory hallucinations. An even smaller number of people experience visual hallucinations.

It's also not uncommon for media portrayals to discount that many people with mental illness don’t need to disclose their condition to everyone around them.

Instead, mental illness often goes unrecognized (whether by intention or not). The portrayals in the media tend to present situations where everyone in a character's life knows about their mental illness.

Perhaps most concerning, the media often portrays mental illness as untreatable or unrecoverable.

Trivialization of Mental Illness By the Media

The media can also trivialize mental illness, either by promoting mental illness as not being severe or being less severe than it really is.

For instance, many people with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa feel that their condition is made out to be less severe than it really is. This is in part because people with the condition portrayed in the media often minimize its seriousness and hide the severe consequences of the disease.

The truth is, the death rate for people with anorexia is high. In reality, anorexia has one of the highest mortality rates of any mental health condition. Research suggests the risk of dying is 10 times higher for people who have anorexia nervosa. 

Mental illness can also be oversimplified by the media. For instance, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often depicted as being overly concerned with cleanliness and perfectionism. However, the obsessive thoughts that drive their compulsions are overlooked or absent.

The symptoms of mental illness are sometimes portrayed as being beneficial. For example, in the popular television series Monk, the protagonist is a detective with OCD. The fact that he pays close attention to detail helps him solve crimes and advance his career.

People who do not have disabilities can use media channels to mock people who do have disabilities, such as by appropriating mental-illness terminology. For instance, the hashtag OCD (#OCD) is commonly used on Twitter to describe one's attention to cleanliness or organization.

Depictions of Schizophrenia in Film

Probably the most disparaging stigmatizations of mental illness in media lie in the film portrayals of antagonists with mental illness. In particular, when characters with schizophrenia are presented as “homicidal maniacs” in “slasher” or “psycho killer” movies.

Inaccurate portrayals of mental illness in the media disseminate misinformation about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of schizophrenia and other forms of severe mental illness. Unfortunately, popular movies and tv shows can exert potent influences on attitude formation.

In one study, researchers analyzed 41 movies that had been released between 1990 and 2010 for depictions of schizophrenia.

Based on the findings of the analysis, researchers drew several conclusions.

  • Most of the characters displayed "positive" symptoms of schizophrenia, with delusions being featured most frequently, followed by auditory and visual hallucinations.
  • The majority of characters displayed violent behavior toward themselves or others.
  • Nearly one-third of violent characters engaged in homicidal behavior.
  • About one-fourth of the characters committed suicide.
  • The cause of schizophrenia was infrequently noted. However, in about one-fourth of the movies it was implied that a traumatic life event for the character had been a significant causative factor.
  • Of the movies that alluded to or showed mental illness treatment, psychotropic medications were most commonly portrayed.

Research has also found that 75% of depictions of mental illness in popular video games are negative or stereotyped.

Why Such Portrayals Are Damaging

These portrayals are not only incorrect but damaging—and for several reasons.

They Spread Myths About Mental Illness

The portrayals of schizophrenia often focus on symptoms such as visual hallucinations, bizarre delusions, and disorganized speech, and present them as commonplace. In reality, symptoms like decreased motivation, poverty of speech, and flat affect are more common.

They Link Mental Illness to Violence

Several movies have spread the false stereotype that people with schizophrenia are prone to violence and unpredictable behavior. Some films even presented people with schizophrenia as being “possessed.”

These violent stereotypes influence viewers and engender harsh negative attitudes toward people with mental illness.

They Exaggerate Suicide Risk

While suicide is a significant concern for people with schizophrenia, the research on media portrayals of schizophrenia found that this risk is often exaggerated in film and tv representations. In one study, 24% of the characters with schizophrenia committed suicide.

In reality, estimates suggest that between 4% and 13% of people with schizophrenia die by suicide, and approximately 18% to 55% attempt suicide at some point in their lifetime.

They Misrepresent Who Is Affected

Demographics is another aspect of mental illness that is often misrepresented by media portrayals of mental illness.

For example, characters with schizophrenia are frequently depicted as being white males, but schizophrenia disproportionately affects African Americans. It also affects men and women almost equally.

They Spread Myths About Causes of Mental Illness

In a few movies, schizophrenia was depicted as being secondary to traumatic life events or curable by love—both of which are misrepresentations of the condition's causes and treatment.

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What's Accurate In Media Portayals?

Not all the information presented about schizophrenia was found to be incorrect, misleading, or stigmatizing. For example, in more than half of the movies that researchers analyzed, the use of psychiatric medications was depicted or alluded to.

Nearly half the characters with schizophrenia were depicted as being poor, which aligns with epidemiological data suggesting that schizophrenia is diagnosed less frequently in people of higher socioeconomic standing.

Even when some movies get it right, the negative media portrayals—especially those that are violent—of people with schizophrenia and other severe forms of mental illness still contribute to stigmatization, stereotyping, discrimination, and social rejection.

Impact of the Media on Mental Health

The impact of mental health stigmatization by the media can contribute to a number of different effects.

  • Self-stigma: Media portrayals can contribute to self-stigma, which refers to feelings of internalized shame, negative beliefs, and negative attitudes that people have about their own mental health condition.
  • Incorrect information: Because of media portrayals of mental illness, people often get incorrect ideas about the symptoms of mental health conditions. It can also lead people to develop inaccurate ideas about how mental illness is diagnosed and treated.
  • Barriers to treatment: Media messages can also create barriers to treatment. Because people internalize stigmatized attitudes about mental illness, they may be less likely to seek out help or treatment when they experience symptoms.
  • Poor treatment adherence: People are more likely to adhere to their treatment if they have social support and encouragement from others. Negative attitudes toward mental illness and stereotypes portrayed in the media may contribute to worse attitudes about mental health treatments and poorer adherence.
  • Self-diagnosis: People might also be more likely to self-diagnose themselves based on viral social media posts seen on Tik Tok and Instagram. Such information is often shared by people who are not mental health professionals and is often inaccurate.

What Can Be Done?

We need a better understanding of how these messages are disseminated by the media before we can rectify them. There is limited research looking at how media promotes mental-illness stereotypes, stigmatization, and trivialization.

Nevertheless, certain suggestions have been made on how to improve the depiction of people with mental illness in the media, such as:

  • Analyzing mass-media production procedures to better understand screenwriters, producers, and journalists' current practices, needs, values, and economic realities (for instance, understanding the balance between being newsworthy or emotionally arousing and verifiable).
  • Implementing a mental health short course when training journalists.
  • Including expert input from psychiatrists during a film's production.
  • Preferring non-individualized descriptions of mental illness and instead focusing on the societal aspects.
  • Presenting mental illness only when relevant to the story.
  • Using mental-health terminology with precision, fairness, and expertise.

As individuals who consume copious amounts of mass media and engage with social media, the best thing we can do is stop using words like “crazy” and “deranged” in a derogatory or flippant fashion. We also need to remember that it's best to avoid making a psychiatric diagnosis outside of a clinical setting.

A Word From Verywell

Only a specialist can make a diagnosis of OCD, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental health conditions. When we give someone the label of being mentally ill without clinical evidence, we hurt people who live with mental illness on a daily basis.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, is a medical writer and editor covering new treatments and trending health news.