When examining the underlying structures that shape social attitudes about mental illness, the media play a particularly important role, because for many people, their first exposure to mental illness is in the media. It comes in the form of fictional depictions as well as news coverage where mental illness is featured, and it often comes with grave misinformation, including from publications that really should be using fact checkers or relying on consultants to depict mental illness accurately. That wrong information is distributed so casually and commonly is extraordinarily frustrating, and speaks to the lack of interest on the part of those who control the media when it comes to handling mental health responsibly.
Take, for example, bipolar disorder. If you don’t know someone who’s bipolar and you’re not familiar with mental health issues, you probably have a very foggy idea of what bipolar disorder is and how it works. You might think it’s what used to be called ‘multiple personality disorder,’ for example. Or you may have bipolar disorder and schizophrenia confused; perhaps you are uncertain about the distinctions between the two. You probably don’t know that there are multiple forms of bipolar disorder that can vary in presentation and severity and that there are a number of ways to manage it, including not just medications but also various types of therapy and alternative practices that work for some patients.
What the media advances is that bipolar disorder is a scary unknown, a hulking menace in the background. It’s talked about in vague and hushed terms that don’t provide you with any meaningful information other than that bipolar people are scary and should be avoided. Should definitely be feared; when you think ‘crazy,’ this comes to mind. When you think about people who shouldn’t be allowed to own guns, or who should be forcibly medicated, this is what comes to mind, because this is what the media has projected.
Bipolar disorder catapulted into the public eye with the diagnosis of Jesse Jackson Junior late last year, sparking a round of discussion, speculation, and invasive commentary. First he was scrutinised by the media for being hospitalised at all, and people speculated about what was wrong with him and suggested that he owed this information to the general public. Even in the throes of hospitalisation and all that comes with it, he was supposed to be performing for the public, feeding information about his condition and status to eager watchers, or he was somehow failing at being a good public figure.
And once he was diagnosed and the diagnosis was made public, irresponsible reporting abounded as people mouthed off about a mental health condition they didn’t understand and clearly weren’t interested in researching. The framing pointed to exactly why so many mentally ill people live in the closet. Because it is dangerous to be out. Because people like you are the subject of terrifying comments and every time there’s a round of publicity like this, you start to fear for your job, your safety, the safety of your family. If you’re known as ‘crazy’ you live with the Sword of Damocles over your head because you never know what might happen to you.
You might be considered unreliable when you report a crime. Or you might be considered an obvious suspect for a crime you didn’t commit. Or you might be abused by police when they’re called to the scene if you’re in distress. You might be forcibly committed or forced onto medications, depending on where you live, and you might need to live in fear that your loved ones could also betray you. Your children might be taken from you or your marriage might fall apart and it will be blamed on the crazy, even if there were a number of factors that played a role.
And you’ll have to watch the media’s version of people like you play out in fiction and on the news. You might not see yourself in fictional characters because they have so little basis in reality; few writers actually bother to research mental illness, assuming that they can wing it, because how hard can it be. Everyone knows how crazy people act, how they look, how they feel. And in the news, where one might expect actual reporting rooted in factual information, mental illness is typically covered extremely irresponsibly.
It casts a web of misinformation about mental illness that ensnares people who are totally unaware of it. They assume that their media and pop culture understanding of mental illness is sufficient for their needs and they understand everything they need to know, so they don’t actively seek out different information, balanced material, the experiences of mentally ill people who might provide deeper insight into what it’s like to live with mental illness. Through the media, members of the public are taught to fear us, not to seek out information about us and to find common ground with us.
Through the media, people also learn very damaging things about how to handle mental illness in both friends and strangers. They absorb dangerous messaging about how to treat people with depression, for example, and may interact with friends and loved ones in a way that actually makes their condition worse. When they encounter mentally ill people in other settings, like the workplace or the street, they react with the fear instilled in them through the media, little understanding the systems they’re locked into. Tragedy strikes not because mental illness is inherently dangerous and bad, but because uninformed people who think they know what they’re doing can be extremely dangerous.
And when it does, the media focuses on the mental health aspects of the case, spreading more disinformation along the way, creating an endless cycle that feeds itself and grows ever-larger. The lack of responsibility in mental health reporting and the inclusion of mental illness in pop culture is appalling, and so is the pushback when mental health advocates protest.