One in five adults suffer from mental illness in the United States alone. This statistic approximates to about 43.8 million people (“Mental Health by the Numbers”). Many of these people who live with the hardship of mental illness or a mental disability struggle with whether they should get help or manage it on their own. Why, one may ask, don’t they just get help if it will make them better? For one, it’s not that easy. To treat a mental illness takes time, and it may not always go away completely. Also, there is a lot of stigma around being mentally ill or mentally disabled, so it can be difficult for someone to just reach out for help. Although being mentally ill or mentally disabled are two different things, the issues that both groups face are similar and are overlapping in many cases. For instance, as a result of negative stereotypes circulating in society, individuals in both groups may fear being seen as violent and dangerous. These stereotypes are especially evident within the news media and the entertainment industry. While in some ways, the media has helped show the issues people with mental illnesses and disabilities face, there still seems to be a large problem with negative stereotypes or misrepresentations. In order for this misrepresentation to stop, we must have more mental health education in general. It would also help to have stricter laws on discrimination within media and entertainment outlets. With the completion of at least the first of these two objectives, the discrimination and stigma against the mentally ill and disabled has the potential to decrease. In turn, this minimization of discrimination would allow many more people to get the professional help they need and live healthier, happier lives.
To understand the stigma and stereotypes related to the mentally ill and disabled in today’s society, it is important to first learn some history on how these beliefs came to exist. Forceful treatments and exorcisms go back to Ancient Mesopotamia, where it was believed that mental illness stemmed from demonic possession. To “cure” the patient, someone would create a hole in the patient’s skull, which would allow the evil spirits to be let out (Stanley). As history progressed, families were known to either confine or abandon their mentally ill or disabled family members. In the 18th century, a large reform took place that involved creating hospitals for the mentally ill and disabled where they could live and be cared for. Along with these hospitals, in the 20th century acts and organizations such as Mental Health America and the U.S. Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963 were enacted to “improve the lives of the mentally ill” (Stanley). During the 20th century, however, the public did not know what was really going on within these psychiatric hospitals and homes, as the mentally ill and mentally disabled continued to be exploited and treated poorly.
What is startling is that this exploitation still exists today and is visible in the mainstream media. For instance, many times when news headlines or programs address mental illness, it tends to be in a negative and violent way. These negative characterizations force a bias upon audiences, overdramatizing the situation and giving the effect that the mentally ill are more dangerous than they may actually be. For example, The Sun received backlash after publishing an article titled, “1,200 Killed by Mental Patients.” Sensationalist or insensitive headlines like this one are often misleading and contribute to the stigma surrounding mental illness. This headline portrays the mentally ill to be horrible killers, when in reality there are studies that show that the number of homicides by people who are mentally ill have gone down in the past few years (Morse). Even when looking at the data from which The Sun had taken their statistics, the numbers of murders from the mentally ill decreased from 2006 to 2010, with 2010 being the year with the least amount of deaths (Chalabi). Studies actually show that the majority of homicides are not from people with a mental illness. In fact, out of the 635 homicides in Wales and England in 2010-2011, 95% of them were by people that weren’t suffering from any mental distress (Chalabi). Yet this is not the information that the authors of “1,200 Killed by Mental Patients,” chose to share. They chose to only disclose information that would further stigmatize mentally ill patients.
The entertainment industry also contributes to misrepresentations or flawed depictions of the mentally ill and disabled through polarizing portrayals. Some crime television shows, for example, classify mentally ill or disabled individuals as violent. The television show Criminal Minds often depicts the murderer or rapist as someone who has a mental illness. There is constant reinforcement that people with mental illnesses are dangerous. On the other hand, when the mentally ill person is not shown as a sociopathic killer, they are shown as gifted, which is still a flawed representation. For example, in the popular TV show Perception the main character uses his schizophrenic hallucinations to help him solve crimes. These examples illustrate a tendency in the entertainment industry to present polarizing stereotypes, and yet this is our society’s main intake of knowledge of the mentally ill and disabled. Therefore, it is imperative that both news media and entertainment outlets circulate correct information about and truthful portrayals of psychological disorders and illnesses.
In order to begin educating people on the various mental disorders and disabilities, the first step is to teach people that there is a difference between a mental disorder and a mental disability. Mental illnesses are “disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior” (Mayo Clinic). Some common examples of mental illnesses are depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia. On the other hand, an intellectual or mental disability falls under the broader category of developmental disabilities and is “a disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior” (“Definition of Intellectual Disability”). Once the public is aware of these overarching definitions, I believe it would be helpful for them to then learn about some of the prevalent ones. Educating the public on this topic would allow people to be able to distinguish fact from fiction when confronted with representations of the mentally ill and disabled. The main issue is that the education must be done in places where a large amount of people would be able to access it, such as schools. There is already a decent amount of organizations trying to educate people, such as National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and One Mind Institute, but they are not able to reach out to enough people. Implementing education on mental illnesses and disabilities into the standards for public-school curriculums would ensure that everyone can begin to learn this information at an early age.
Another way to educate the public on mental illnesses and disabilities is to actually use media coverage and other forms of entertainment to spread awareness and counter stereotypes rather than maintain them. For example, the documentary Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace by Geraldo Rivera was a huge breakthrough in exposing to the public the horrors that went on inside of some psychiatric institutions. The documentary reveals the abuse and mistreatment taking place at Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York and created a huge public outcry (Rivera). In the case of the Willowbrook documentary, when people were educated on the truth, their perspectives began to change and reform was able to occur. As a result of the documentary, the Willowbrook State School was shut down.
In addition to documentary film, fictional television shows and movies also offer opportunities to promote education and counter negative or polarizing stereotypes. Rather than portraying individuals with mental illnesses as having either criminal or superhuman attributes, more nuanced fictional characters would help the public shape its understanding of different mental illnesses and disabilities. The ABC sitcom Speechless has been praised for its inclusion of not only including a character with cerebral palsy, a developmental disability, but for casting an actor with a disability in the show. In playing J.J. on Speechless, Micah Fowler, a young man with cerebral palsy, is bringing attention to the need for more diverse casting and inclusion of actors with disabilities in mainstream television shows and movies. The show portrays real-life issues that people with cerebral palsy may go through. For instance, at one point J.J.’s mother has to fight for a disability ramp at his high school (Hunt). Unlike the previously mentioned examples of the televisions shows Criminal Minds and Perception, Speechless considers the everyday struggles of someone who has a developmental disability (the larger category under which intellectual and mental disabilities are classified). The show might be seen as a model for future television shows to bring more visibility to various disabilities. What Geraldo’s Willowbrook documentary and the sitcom Speechless have in common are that they are both examples of just some of the ways different forms of media and entertainment can be used a positive ways to educate a large audience on some of the issues that mentally ill and disabled people face.
Yet while education is one necessary step towards counteracting negative stigmas and stereotypes of the mentally ill and disabled, it would also be helpful to enact better laws against discrimination. Presently there are plenty of laws that have been enacted to help ease the discrimination in the workplace, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act. This act prevents discrimination by the employer against people with disabilities in any part of employment (“Federal Antidiscrimination Laws”). While this act is not perfect, it has helped eliminate a lot of the discrimination that individuals with disabilities faced in the workplace. However, a few things within this act could be easily tweaked to improve its use. This act prohibits discrimination by all private employers with 15 or more employees, but there are obviously many small businesses that have fewer than 15 employees (“Questions and Answers”). Therefore, reducing the number of employees needed for this act could easily help more people become covered, and in turn protected, by it.
Creating more anti-discrimination laws and educating people are two ways to begin counteracting the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and disabilities. If misrepresentations are stopped and the news and television make sustained efforts to represent the mentally ill and disabled correctly, then fewer people will categorize them as violent. Proper education will then show society what mental illness and disabilities really consist of and hopefully eventually get rid of the stigma altogether. Because of the stigma surrounding people with mental illnesses and disabilities, people may not seek help and in turn their mental health may decline. This could result in self-harm, or even suicide. Therefore, it is crucial that the mentally ill and disabled are represented accurately so that people are not afraid to seek the help they need to ensure their livelihood and well being.
Chalabi, Mona. “The Sun says 1,200 people have been killed by ‘mental patients’ – is it true?” theguardian.com, 7 Oct. 2013, www.theguardian.com/society/reality-check/2013/oct/07/sun-people-killed-mental-health-true.
“Definition of Intellectual Disability.” AAIDD. www.aaidd.org/intellectual-disability/definition.
“Federal Antidiscrimination Laws.” NOLO. www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/federal-antidiscrimination-laws-29451.html.
Hunt, Lauri. ““Speechless”: A Comedy That Includes Disability.” Ollibean. www.ollibean.com/speechless-show-family-non-speaking-child/. Accessed 10 June 2017.
“Mental Health By the Numbers.” NAMI. www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers
Morse, Felicity. “The Sun Newspaper’s ‘1,200 Killed by Mental Patients’ Headline Labelled ‘Irresponsible and Wrong.’” Independent, 7 Oct. 2013. www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/the-sun-newspapers-1200-killed-by-mental-patients-headline-labelled-irresponsible-and-wrong-8863893.html.
Rivera, Geraldo, Producer. Willowbrook: The Last Disgrace, 1972. www.geraldo.com/page/willowbrook.
“Mental Illness.” Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.org/diseasesconditions/mental-illness/basics/definition/con-20033813.
Stanley, Tasha. “A Beautiful Mind: The History of the Treatment of Mental Illness.” History Cooperative 14 Mar. 2015. www.historycooperative.org/a-beautiful-mind-the-history-of-the-treatment-of-mental-illness.
“Questions and Answers: The Americans with Disabilities Act and Persons with HIV/AIDS.” U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Disability Rights Section. www.ada.gov/hiv/ada_q&a_aids.htm.