See­ing My­self on TV Who Gets to Talk About As­sault?

Des­tig­ma­tiz­ing Men­tal Ill­ness in the Me­dia

The McGill Daily - - News - Yasna Khademian Com­men­tary Writer Nelly Wat | The Mcgill Daily

The me­dia has a di­rect ef­fect on our perceptions of peo­ple, es­pe­cially when it comes to men­tal health — a topic that is of­ten in­ac­cu­rately por­trayed in the news and en­ter­tain­ment. When men­tal ill­ness is used as a joke or dra­matic prop in­stead of a real is­sue that many peo­ple are fac­ing, it re­in­forces the stigma sur­round­ing men­tal ill­ness in our so­ci­ety. There has def­i­nitely been an im­prove­ment in the por­tray­als of men­tal health in the me­dia. I re­mem­ber watch­ing the show Glee when I was younger; look­ing back on Emma’s com­pul­sions to clean, and her strug­gles with ob­ses­sive- com­pul­sive dis­or­der, I strongly iden­tify with her now. How­ever, there were also scenes in the show where her OCD was used as a punch­line, such as when some­one throws up on her and she goes to the emer­gency room to have four de­con­tam­i­na­tion show­ers. Such in­ac­cu­rate de­pic­tions are per­va­sive and dam­age our perceptions of peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness. This neg­a­tive per­cep­tion com­bined with a lack of in­for­ma­tion on men­tal health of­ten leads to peo­ple go­ing their whole life with­out be­ing prop­erly di­ag­nosed or treated.

For years, I have strug­gled with in­tru­sive thoughts and com­pul­sions that I per­form ex­ces­sively, as well as ex­treme skin- pick­ing. Th­ese habits, which I tried to con­trol and des­per­ately wanted to be rid of, con­sumed my life at times and con­trib­uted to my own in­se­cu­ri­ties and be­lief that I was a ter­ri­ble per­son. Grow­ing up, I never re­al­ized that th­ese com­pul­sions were ac­tu­ally symp­toms of a men­tal ill­ness. It was only re­cently that I re­ceived the help I needed and started the process of treat­ing my ob­ses­sive­com­pul­sive dis­or­der.

OCD is of­ten only de­picted in the me­dia as lik­ing neat­ness and or­der­li­ness — it is por­trayed as a per­son­al­ity trait rather than a men­tal ill­ness. While many with OCD do strug­gle with main­tain­ing or­der, th­ese com­pul­sions are at­tempts at re­duc­ing anx­i­ety and pro­vide tem­po­rary re­lief un­til the com­pul­sions comes back. Liv­ing with OCD means liv­ing with con­stant in­tru­sive thoughts and rit­u­als. If the me­dia that we con­sume starts show­ing more hon­est and truth­ful sto­ries, peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness will be able to see their strug­gles por­trayed in a real and rel­e­vant way. Fur­ther­more, au­then­tic por­tray­als can lead to mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tions in com­mu­ni­ties and be­tween fam­ily and friends, help­ing to re­duce the stigma sur­round­ing men­tal health.

To some­one with a men­tal ill­ness, an ac­cu­rate por­trayal of their strug­gles can be the start of rec­og­niz­ing they are not alone. The re­al­iza­tion that your strug­gles are the man­i­fes­ta­tions of an ill­ness can be very help­ful and cathar­tic. When we por­tray sick peo­ple as fun­da­men­tally bro­ken in­stead of as peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing from an ill­ness, we create a cul­ture where peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness are shunned from so­ci­ety. West­ern me­dia has a ten­dency to sen­sa­tion­al­ize im­ages of peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness com­mit­ting crimes, when the vast ma­jor­ity ob­vi­ously does not fit this stereo­type. The same is done in movies, where sto­ry­lines about men­tal ill­nesses are used for dra­matic ef­fect, de­spite the stigma they create. We must be open to fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion and con­ver­sa­tions about men­tal health, es­pe­cially as we’re grow­ing up, to en­sure that peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness can iden­tify their ex­pe­ri­ences and get the treat­ment they need.

How­ever, it is im­por­tant to keep in mind that treat­ment can come in many forms. In the con­text of men­tal ill­ness, it can in­clude medication, but also dis­cus­sions with a pro­fes­sional, mind­ful­ness, med­i­ta­tion, and var­i­ous other forms of ther­apy tai­lored to each in­di­vid­ual.

An ex­am­ple of this harm­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion can be seen in Youtu­ber Shane Daw­son’s por­trayal of so­ciopa­thy. Daw­son’s series on “The Mind of Jake Paul” is an in- depth, on­go­ing series about Youtu­ber Jake Paul’s life and mo­tives. The sec­ond episode of the series dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity that Paul ex­hibits so­cio­pathic ten­den­cies. The term “so­ciopath” is not a rec­og­nized men­tal dis­or­der, the men­tal ill­ness he is re­fer­ring to is known as an­ti­so­cial per­son­al­ity dis­or­der (ASPD). The video in­cludes b-roll footage of a shadow of a per­son eat­ing an­other per­son, with creepy back­ground mu­sic cre­at­ing the ef­fect of a hor­ror movie. Through­out the video, a ther­a­pist makes insensitive com­ments, at one point re­fer­ring to peo­ple with ASPD as “re­ally gross.” The video failed to pro­vide a mean­ing­ful and ac­cu­rate dis­cus­sion of the ill­ness, in­stead por­tray­ing every­one with ASPD as mon­sters in­ca­pable of emo­tion. There is a wide spec­trum of peo­ple with ASPD, and cre­at­ing a nar­ra­tive where all peo­ple with ASPD should be feared is mis­in­for­ma­tive and harm­ful. It is es­sen­tial that the con­ver­sa­tions about men­tal health are struc­tured in a re­spon­si­ble way. While friends and fam­ily can no­tice symp­toms, only pro­fes­sion­als such as a psy­chi­a­trist or li­censed ther­a­pist should di­ag­nose a men­tal ill­ness. All rep­re­sen­ta­tion is not good rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and this spread­ing of harm­ful stereo­types amongst an au­di­ence as young as Daw­son’s is con­cern­ing.

The way we pe­jo­ra­tively use men­tal ill­nesses in our day- to­day lan­guage is a di­rect re­sult of in­ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tions of men­tal health. Call­ing some­one bipo­lar be­cause their mood can be er­ratic, OCD be­cause they like or­der, or a so­ciopath be­cause you dis­like them, is not only in­cred­i­bly of­fen­sive but also dis­cour­ages pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions. I do not think Shane Daw­son, or many peo­ple who have used men­tal ill­nesses in a neg­a­tive way, al­ways come from a place of ill-in­tent; it of­ten comes from a place of ig­no­rance. There is lit­tle to no ed­u­ca­tion in schools about men­tal health, and the neg­a­tive perceptions of men­tal ill­ness in the me­dia fur­ther stig­ma­tize it. This must change; it is es­sen­tial that we con­tinue to raise aware­ness about men­tal ill­ness in or­der to create a so­ci­ety in which dis­cus­sions of men­tal health are taken se­ri­ously, me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tions of men­tal ill­ness are ac­cu­rate and hon­est, and peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness can find the treat­ment they need.

When men­tal ill­ness is used as a joke or dra­matic prop in­stead of a real is­sue that many peo­ple are fac­ing, it re­in­forces the stigma sur­round­ing men­tal ill­ness.

To some­one with a men­tal ill­ness, an ac­cu­rate por­trayal of their strug­gles can be the start of rec­og­niz­ing they are not alone. The re­al­iza­tion that your strug­gles are the man­i­fes­ta­tions of an ill­ness can be very help­ful and cathar­tic.

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