Media Contributes to Mental Illness Stigma: Inaccurate Stereotypes Harmful to Campus Dialogue

Note: This article contains content related to suicide and depression. This content warning has been included at the writer’s request.

For far too long, we have avoided conversations surrounding mental illness and mental health because of the discomfort that it can create. Often, this discomfort is caused by the negative stereotypes that surrounds mental illness. People fear what they do not fully understand, and the portrayal of individuals with mental illnesses in modern media is overtly negative.

Enough is enough.

A discussion on suicide and mental health is particularly necessary for our age group, as it is the second leading cause of death in the United States for those aged 15 to 24.

In some cases of suicide, the individual involved is considered to be high-achieving. Madison Holleran was considered a successful student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, and she committed suicide. In recent years, suicides at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been higher than the national average for college students, sitting at 12.5 suicides per 100,000 students.

This can be surprising, as one of the commonly discussed symptoms of depression or suicidal ideation is a decrease in academic or social performance. Due to deep-seeded stereotypes perpetuated by a lack of discussion regarding mental health, media sometimes portrays depressed individuals as overtly sad and unable to function. But the idea that high-achieving individuals cannot have suicidal ideations is one of the factors that prevents them from seeking help. It is an incorrect belief that continues to perpetuate unnecessary stigma surrounding mental health. As American culture places a high value on tangible achievement, high-achieving individuals are told they have found success, and are thereby excluded from discussions of mental illness.

Along these lines, the media has an unfortunate habit of depicting suicide and mental health crises in the context of a one-off event. A suicide occurs in response to a break up or a singular failure (“Degrassi”). A mental health crisis lasts a time period of exactly one episode (“Will and Grace”). One pill solves the problem (“Nurse Jackie”).

When an individual has a mental illness, it can take doctors multiple tries to prescribe an effective treatment, and therapy can take years. But depicting people undergoing chronic stress and subsequent long-term medical treatment as well as therapy is tedious and undramatic.

Individuals with mental illness are instead utilized as tools to further a plot point, often as a revenge tool or climactic arc. One such character is the woman scorned, who uses suicide as a glorious death, a way for her to impact the lives of those around her. One of the most overt examples of this is “13 Reasons Why.” Additional characters include the misunderstood school shooter who takes out his anger on the student body, as depicted on “American Horror Story,” or the friend who just couldn’t take it anymore, commits suicide and then launches a moral rediscovery for the main character, as seen on “House.

While these subplots are indeed captivating, they are unhealthy. They oversimplify the pain and grief felt by those experiencing mental illness and fail to direct viewers toward resources that could aid them in taking steps toward recovery. Furthermore, they can strengthen the detrimental link in people’s minds between mental illness and violence. Finally, the glorification or portrayal of suicide as revenge is especially dangerous for young adults, who are more prone to impulsivity and do not have a fully formed idea of their future or the larger impact of their actions.

Suicide on television is often portrayed as a quick and painless death by overdose an easy out for a character. This portrayal of suicide by poisoning as being painless and sleep educing is clinically unfounded and dangerous. We must recognize inaccuracies and work to combat the stigma of mental illnesses in media.

Mental health issues shape college campuses on a deep level, and we must begin having open and honest dialogue to help others to heal. Mental illness is an often misunderstood topic, but it’s possible to break down the stereotypes that surround it. I encourage everyone to think critically about these issues and encourage sensitivity and understanding when discussing these subjects. You never know how these issues may have impacted the lives of those around you.

If you are struggling, do not hesitate to reach out to our campus resources, like Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), or a national hotline.

Emory HelpLine: 404-727-HELP (4357)

Emory Psychiatry on Call: 404-778-5000

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

 

Rebecca Upton is a Goizueta Business School junior from Grapevine, Texas. 

 

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