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Mental Health & Popular Media

By Jada and Sania

Mental illness is a very stigmatized subject, needless to say. It is often found tough to talk about because of many different factors, including the fear of the unknown. Through the use of various stereotypes and over-dramatization, popular media (hereby referred to as movies & TV shows) enforces the public’s negative and fearful outlook on those with a mental illness. This notion is prevalent in movies such as A Beautiful Mind, Psycho, & even The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is also noted in TV shows such as Dexter, You, & 13 Reasons Why. In this post, we will be going through the common misconceptions around mental health found in popular movies & TV shows and the reality behind the situations. 

1. The Psychotic & Dangerous Notion

Unfortunately, many of us are taught to believe that everyone who has a psychological condition is “psycho” and the term itself has been overused a lot, so much that it has basically lost it’s true meaning. 

A psychopath is an individual who uses manipulation, violence, and intimidation to control others and satisfy selfish needs. They can be intelligent and highly charismatic, but display a chronic inability to feel guilt, remorse, or anxiety about any of their actions. This is also considered being “cold-blooded” or “calculative”. 

So yes, not every criminal, murderer, or person with a mental illness can be labeled as a psychopath. Heck, even the movie “Psycho” was not about a real psycho, but rather someone who suffered from dissociative personality disorder. Another thing worthy to note is that most psychopaths are not killers. Just like the general population, most psychopaths don’t feel the need to get violent and do not act as threats. Otherwise, we would have way more serial killers today than we did.

2. Oversimplification- We tend to see the media either promoting mental illness as not being severe or not as serious as it needs to be. For example people who suffer from anorexia tend to make their illness sound not important or minimize it. In real life the death rate of anorexia is very high.

Another example is OCD, we often see it as them being worried about cleaning but it’s been oversimplification. However it’s the obsessive thoughts that drive their OCD, which is overlooked or absent.  

People who don’t suffer from this disease tend to mock people who do on social media for example- the hashtag OCD (#OCD) is commonly used to describe someone’s cleanniest or organization which due to shows and movies portraying a character with OCD like that. When really what they are doing is damaging and they are spreading false information.

3. Misrepresentation of Personality Disorders 

Similar to the misrepresentation with psychopaths, people suffering from personality disorders, such as OCD and bipolar disorder, often get stuck with the cliches in the media. For instance, obsessive compulsive disorder is often represented as “clean freaks” or “someone against messes” and bipolar disorder is typically depicted as only mania and moody. This goes hand-in-hand with our previous reason of over-simplification because it belittles actual mental illnesses, who many people suffer from, to stereotypes. 

An example of this is in the movie Split, which faced much backlash for portraying multiple personality disorder, or DID, quite inaccurately and again, violently. Most people suffering from DID do not experience violent tendencies and this notion just adds more fuel to the flame that is the stigma. 

  1. Damsel in Distress-  Love can’t fix you no matter how movies and tv shows choose to shove it down our throats. For example in 13 reasons why Clay Jensen says “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her.” it sends the wrong message to viewers, they think love can cure all and that is wrong. Love is not a treatment and shouldn’t be used as one.

You cannot save someone from their mental illness. There is a time where it is hard to recover from it and most people never recover from it so they tend to live their whole life like that and thinking that you can save them is very unrealistic. Even therapists don’t want to save them but help them to be able to function in society, they try to get to the root of the problem. You can only try to understand and be patient and love them but that love can’t save them. 

  1. Mental Health Professionals

Mental health practitioners are commonly portrayed in one or more of the following ways: neurotic, unable to maintain professional boundaries, drug-or alcohol-addicted, rigid, controlling, ineffectual, mentally ill themselves, comically inept, uncaring, self-absorbed, having ulterior motives, easily tricked or manipulated, foolish, and/or idiotic (citing glen gabbard, 1998).

This false idea holds people from seeking help, thinking that all mental health professionals would be crazy or use their illness against them. 

  1. False treatment methods

Speaking of mental health professionals, treatment methods are often unrealistic in movies and TV shows. For instance, take A Beautiful Mind, a very famous movie based on the famous schizophrenic mathematician, John Forbes Nash Jr. It follows John Nash’s journey from graduate school at Princeton all the way to him winning the nobel prize, throughout it all focusing on his mental illness. Although Nash’s character was very exaggerated and made more complex than was necessary, the depiction of schizophrenia was accurate — for the most part.

However, that’s not where the concern lies. The concern lies within the fact that the movie showed Nash ditching medication and overcoming the illness with his own “willpower”. Now, this may sound great and corny, however it’s actually a seriously concerning depiction. Schizophrenia is one of the most complex mental illnesses and it is rare — even near to impossible — to overcome it without medication. 

  1. The notion that all mental illnesses are the same at the core and are all extreme and most of the time people cant recover-

I have said it once and I will say it again mental illness is not like any other mental illness. Everyone is different and they do not share the same mental illness. People’s recovery time is going to be different too. They would have typically grown up in harsh environments making recovery hard or easy environments making recovery a little faster with their families around.

There are a lot of factors that go into someone’s recovery time. That also has to do with the illness itself. Schizophrenics are different from someone who has multiple personality disorders and just because they act the same way doesn’t mean that they have the same mental illness. 

Due to the high stigmatization that the mentally ill face in our society, many who may have an illness choose not to find assistance even if the treatments are known to help reduce symptoms. One reason is because many are ashamed of their illness and do not want others to think they are crazier than they themselves already think they are — which is heightened by misrepresentations in popular media. Others fear being locked up in a psychiatric center where they will be treated like criminals and forced to take an overwhelming amount of medications. Again, the criminality notion and shame of medication use shown in the media add more fuel to the flames. The stigma around mental health is real and unfortunately movies and TV shows in the past haven’t done a very good job at reducing it. 

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