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Fighting Stigma: Misrepresentations of Mental Illness in the Media

Fighting Stigma: Misrepresentations of Mental Illness in the Media

This material has been reviewed for accuracy by: Renee Albers, PhD

Man's hand holding green ribbon against blue sky signifying fight against mental health stigmaFacing stigma can be one of the most challenging aspects of living with a mental illness.

Beyond the symptoms of your condition, you also have to deal with the set of negative (and often exaggerated or inaccurate) beliefs that society has about your illness. And that stigma is often perpetuated by the stories found in your favorite novels, depicted in popular movies and television shows, and even told in everyday news articles and radio items.

Take the crash of a Germanwings jetliner flying from Barcelona, Spain to Dusseldorf, Germany in March 2014 —a tragedy that resulted in the death of 150 passengers. As the media reported on this event, sources suggested that the co-pilot of the flight had a history of depression. Before that fact could even be confirmed, or the details of the crash fully investigated, a frenzy of reports were released in news outlets discussing what role his mental health might have had in the crash. Now, chances are, if you discuss this event, someone around you will say the crash occurred because of the pilot’s depression. Depression and a deadly plane crash are now forever tied together, perpetuating stigma—even though depression manifesting itself into any form of violence remains a rather rare event.

Unfortunately, this type of reporting is not limited to airline crashes. A new study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests that nearly four in 10 news stories about mental illness find ways to connect mental health issues with violent behavior—despite the fact that the vast majority of mental health conditions have no link to interpersonal violence whatsoever.

Emma McGinty, a researcher at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that the nation’s ongoing dialogue about mental illness and violence can help better develop policy and law, but these stories, particularly those rife with speculation, aren’t without a downside.

“Over the past few decades, we’ve had a lot of discussions, particularly around high profile mass shootings, about the link between mental illness and violence,” she says. “And while research suggests there really is a very small link between interpersonal violence and mental illness, these stories persist in the media. And it is very concerning from a stigma perspective. It really perpetuates inaccurate information.”

Organizations like Mental Health America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) have worked diligently to try to reduce the stigma related to mental health conditions—both to more accurately portray these disorders to those who may be unfamiliar with them and also to encourage those who may be suffering from them to seek the help and treatment they need. In a recent blog post about reducing stigma, NAMI encouraged the public to “push back against the way people who live with mental illness are portrayed in the media.”

And how might they push back? First and foremost, you can read media reports, especially initial early reporting of events with a grain of salt. And, perhaps most importantly, reporters can do their job and report the facts—and only the facts—in early reports. McGinty says that early speculation about the role of mental illness often colors a story, and that color remains even when later disproved by the facts.

“We often found that the links between mental illness and the scariest violence acts were hypothesized or simply speculated about in the absence of fact. And this is why it’s so hard to break this link between violence and mental illness in the public psyche,” she says. “Reporters need to do a better job of avoiding this type of speculation—but readers should also be looking for facts before they go jumping to conclusions. And the fact is that less than 5 percent of violence in the United States is related to mental illness.”

Our articles are for informational purposes only and are reviewed by our Medical Information team, which includes PharmDs, MDs, and PhDs. Do not make any changes to your current medications or dosing without consulting your healthcare provider.

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