Mental health has been in the media for many years, but is it portrayed fairly and accurately?
I recently heard people talking about how mental health is portrayed in the media, not just in the news, but on social media and television programs and movies. The two people discussing the topic were arguing about whether or not it is portrayed in an accurate manner or whether it is presented in a stereotypical and negative way.
The media is an incredibly powerful source when it comes to educating and influencing the public, so it is important that serious topics such as mental health are presented in a fair and factual manner… but sadly this is not always the case.
Studies in the United States have found that most media portrayals of mental health conditions are stereotypically negative and flat-out wrong. This leads to people gaining an inaccurate view of individuals with psychological disorders.
One of the most common stereotypes to be published in the media when it comes to mental health is that mentally ill people are incompetent, unstable, dangerous and undeserving. Could this be an attempt to separate people with mental health conditions from the rest of the population?
Many newspapers have portrayed people with mental health problems as being violent criminals, when in fact, they are more likely to be victimised than they are to be perpetrators of such activities.
When someone with a mental health problem does commit such a crime, the headlines often include words such as, insane, crazy, psycho, unstable, unpredictable, twisted or mentally disturbed. This creates the stereotype that all people with mental health conditions are a danger to themselves and others around them.
In turn, this creates a stigma around mental health, which can stop people from reaching out for help and support in regards to their illness.
On average it takes 3 years for someone with an eating disorder to seek professional help.
Media representation of mental health has been changing in recent years and there has been an increase in serious articles about mental health with a much more accurate portrayal. There has also been an increase in mental health storylines in much-loved TV shows, especially soap operas. But are these storylines well written and how are the characters portrayed?
First I would like to look at Hollyoaks as they have had multiple mental health storylines over the last 18 months. Through research, I discovered that Channel 4, the home of Hollyoaks, have signed the Time To Change Pledge. This shows their dedication and commitment to mental health both on and off screen.
Each Hollyoaks episode/storyline have their own hashtag so that people can discuss the show on social media. One of their most popular hashtags was #DontFilterFeelings. This hashtag was linked to two very important storylines: Lily, a teenage girl struggling with self-harm after being badly injured in a car accident and being bullied for the scars that she was left with. Lily turned to self-harm as a coping mechanism for her depression and would hide her cuts/scars from those around her. This was a very emotional and well-written storyline and when her auntie Diane discovered what Lily was doing, it showed how mental health conditions do not only affect the individual but also those around them. It showed how important love and support is for those struggling with their mental health and how getting help is nothing to be ashamed of. Lily began to make a slow recovery, talking more openly about her thoughts and feelings… though, in recent episodes, Lily has been put under a vast amount of stress and has had a relapse. We saw a very emotional scene between Lily and her cousin Sinead, talking about mental health, stress and self-harm.
The other storyline in relation to this hashtag was to do with a gay character, Scott. He found his biological mother, who gave him up when he was just a baby. He tried very hard to build a relationship with her but she continued to reject him and push him away. As a result, Scott felt as though he was an outcast and he began to feel as though no one truly cared about him, this led to him attempting to take his own life, before eventually admitting that he has a problem and that he needed help.
Both of these storylines were full of raw emotion, they encouraged a lot of people to seek help for their mental health as well as educating people about the seriousness of mental health conditions and the importance of checking in on your loved ones and being there to support them.
These are just two examples of how Hollyoaks have represented mental health through their show. They have also presented bipolar, bulimia and post-traumatic stress disorder within their storylines.
Another brilliant example of mental health being represented in TV soaps would be the storyline of Aidan Connor in Coronation Street. The producers and the cast of Coronation Street worked closely with The Samaritans and CALM Charity in order to ensure that the storyline was executed to a high standard. Aidan was a much-loved character who appeared to have it all… the ladies fancied him, the men like him, he had his own business and seemed overall happy. So when he began to act out of character, viewers took to social media to question his behaviour, not realising that he was battling with depression. People will never truly know what Aidan was dealing with, or the dark thoughts that he was possessed with. This is a huge part of the story; to show viewers that mental health conditions are not always obvious. Aidan’s final scenes were very emotional and certainly made an impact on the viewers. Aidan’s father discovered his body after he had taken his own life (the suicide was not shown on TV), we later see how his friends and family react to the devastating news; questioning why they did not see the signs, wondering if they could have done more.
Overall this emotional, heartbreaking story was portrayed beautifully and all of the cast members certainly did it justice.
On the other hand we have TV soaps like Eastenders, who portray mental health in a different way. A very popular character from the show, Jean Slater suffers from Bipolar Disorder. She is portrayed as quite a comical character, with messy hair and ‘crazy’ eyes. She is a very dramatic character who is full of energy. The actress who plays Jean is absolutely brilliant, there is no denying her talent. However, I feel as though her mental health disorder is not portrayed in an accurate manner.
There are many other TV shows that present mental health in a negative fashion, portraying individuals with mental health disorders as being dangerous and unstable. There are also shows and movies that romanticise mental health, making it look like something that is to be desired, or making it look like a trend.
This clouds peoples judgement of mental health, making them believe that it is something that it is not. It can cause a stigma surrounding mental health conditions, making it harder for people to seek much-needed help and support. It can also cause people to desire to have a mental health problem.
I spoke with a few people about how they think mental health is portrayed in the media and we got onto the topic of social media and the way that people react to mental health stories…
For example, people are quick to make jokes and create memes in regards to mental health, but when someone takes their own life as a result of a mental health problem their attitudes seem to change and they start writing posts about how no one should have to keep their feelings to themselves and that it is sad that so many people suffer in silence. A good example of this would be when Britney Spears had a mental breakdown… this is still joked about today. Yet she had hit a very rough patch in her life, she was at rock bottom and for the media to react in such a negative way was very heartless. Headlines in newspapers branded her as a crazy lunatic, people joked about how they have hit their ‘Britney Spears Moment’, like her mental health was something to compare life events to.
Sinead O’Connor, a very famous singer, has been at the butt of jokes for a very long time as a result of her mental health being documented throughout the media. Yet she is seriously struggling and has cried out for help on many occasions.
Chester Bennington’s suicide, on the other hand, resulted in an outpour of love, support and sympathetic messages across social media.
It baffles me how peoples responses can be so different depending on the situation. They find breakdowns and outbursts to be a great source of entertainment but when someone takes their own life, they become advocates for mental health. It is as if people do not recognise that breakdowns, outbursts and cries for help, when ignored can lead to suicide.
There will never be an all-around perfect representation of mental health in the media, there will always be some form of stereotypical portrayal… but it is important for people to educate themselves in regards to mental health, using reliable resources from charities and academic resources rather than relying on social media, television shows, movies and newspaper articles alone.
You can take a look at the conversation I had with the lovely Estelle and Peter in regards to this topic, over on our facebook group Universe Online! (It has been marked as an announcement at the top of the page)