Sunday, February 6, 2011

What it means to be mentally ill in the media

"Since so many Americans obtain their view of the world through movies, television, and the news media, however, the perpetuation of this and other exaggerated stereotypes of mentally ill people reinforces culturewide stigmatization" - Aaron Levin, "Violence and Mentall Illness: Media Keeps Myths Alive" (A Article)
As covered before the mentally ill's portrayl in media is often inaccurate and damaging, thus leading to the group to be stigmatized. Of course it is not just the News over publicizing certain crimes, but in the public's many forms of entertainment.

There is an informative article on called "Violence and Mental Illness: Media Keep Myths Alive" by Aaron Levin (

I nthe article, Levin interviews Otto Wahl, Ph.D who is a professor of psychology at George Mason University  in Virginia. According to Wahl, mental illness is actually a poor indicator for violence ranking after othe factors such as: youth, male, history of violence, or poverty. With the exceptions of those with substance abuse issues, people with mental illnesses violent acts just as much as those without any disorder. Also, 80 to 90 percent of menatlly ill people never commit a crime.

So why do some people think of crazed axe murders wearing hockey masks when this subject is mentioned? Of course, the media.

News satations have been shown to have a bias against the mentally ill today and in the past. Most of the news consists of stories about crimes being commited and crimes where the perpetrator is menatlly ill are usually the lead story, on the front page, and even have the most coverege on the case, trial, and sentencing.

Along with news coverage there are the problems with the entertainment media as well. According to Levin:
"In popular fiction, “mental cases” commit violent crimes. On TV, they are violent and murderous—both in drama and comedy shows. Slasher movies give birth to multiple sequels. Batman’s foes, the Joker and the Penguin, are “insane.” Even children’s literature is rife with mentally ill villains. In the Harry Potter books, one character is termed “mad” and hence “a danger to anyone who crosses him.”
The such movies like the Halloween franchise no doubt helped fuel the fear towards mentally ill. In various TV shows if someone is mentally ill besides or instead of being a danger, they will sometimes be seen as sources of comedic reliefs. And along with being one of the most iconic and oldest of superheroes, Batman's adversaries tend to be the most iconic and oldest of supervillians, who happen to be mostly insane or diturbed in one way (The Joker much, much ,much more than The Penguin).

Besides ignorance, there are also profits that keep these stereotypes alive in people's minds. Producers admit to wanting action and violence because these genres are cheap to produce and don't require any translation in an export market. Also, there usually isn't much time in some TV shows to develop a character, so mental illness then becomes a convienent steretype and plot device for a story.

Media stigmatization has broader political significance. When public debates arise over issues like involuntary commitment or legal definitions that equal mental illness with criminal behavior.

Of course, the mentally ill are aware of these stereotypes and the problems they make for them. With the stigmatization, isolation and anger there is also the fear of getting help because of these reactions and/or keeping their conditions secret from others.

However, there is hope as there have been more and more media with better portrayls those with mental illness. Such as Ron Howard's film about Nobel Prize winning Mathematician John Nash who also had schizophrenia and  "The Caveman's Valentine" starring Samuel L. Jackson.

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