Societal Views on Mental Illness and Their Effects on the Afflicted
10 April, 2016
Societal Views on Mental Illness and Their Effects on the Afflicted
It is estimated that approximately one in five U.S. adults in the U.S.-nearly 44 million, close to 20 percent of the population experiences mental illness in a given year (Mental Health). When one considers how widespread this problem is, it seems obvious that our nation would be very sympathetic to those afflicted and that a great deal would be spent on research and treatment for these conditions. Sadly this could not be further from the truth; mental illness is not only one of the most overlooked issues in our society, but one that is frequently misrepresented and demonized by media sources. These dramatized negative depictions of mental illness and its treatments can and do adversely influence the general public's perception of the mentally ill, impact the livelihood of mentally ill citizens by lowering their confidence in tasks such as obtaining employment or expanding their social network, and even deter them from seeking treatment for their psychiatric conditions. The mentally ill citizens are not the only ones impacted either, these issues impact society overall due to a decreased workforce, greater usage of public assistance funds, and increased numbers of homeless citizens. No other faction of society is so widely and blatantly stereotyped by media and pop-culture in today's society with as little compassion from the rest of the nation. This is a very real issue that needs to be addressed.
The media is well known for dramatic portrayal and hyperbole with an emphasis on the negative. Unfortunately when it comes to mental illness this tendency is particularly harmful because media depiction often serves as the only exposure much of the nation gets to mental illness. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that mental illness is not a palpable disability and many of the persons afflicted do not disclose their conditions for fear of alienating themselves to others, meaning that the average citizen often may miss a lot of potentially positive experiences of people with mental health disorders. Even for those who do have had positive encounters with the mentally ill, negative media portrayal may still adversely influence opinion; a study published in 2009 found that media depiction can actually override a person's personal experiences and create a stereotypical, negative viewpoint toward the mentally ill (Baun). Sadly, this cycle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as these detrimental representations and societal prejudice continue to contribute to a fear of self-disclosure of mental illness and the resulting perceived lack of positive experience with mentally ill persons among the general population leads to a continued distrust of the unknown and an "us vs them" mentality among the general population.
While this suspicious "us vs them" mentality already causes tension between the general and mentally ill populations, more insidious is the outright hostility caused by the media's near-constant portrayal of the mentally ill as dangerous and unpredictable. This is particularly unfortunate because the majority of these fears are unfounded. Despite the actual reported statistics on violent crime among the mentally ill population showing that a very low percentage of these types of crimes are actually committed by this population, the media and movies still focus strongly on sensationalized depictions of mentally ill persons as deranged criminals or psychopaths. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association examining 429 crimes committed by 143 offenders with serious mental disorders found that only seven and a half percent were directly related to symptoms of mental illness. Two-thirds of the offenders in the study found to have committed crimes related to their symptoms had committed previous crimes not driven by a mental health disorder (Peterson). Numerous other studies reflect the same findings: the mentally ill population tends to commit crimes at similar or lower rates when compared to non- mentally ill peers of the same socioeconomic class. Statistics show that not only are the mentally ill no more likely to commit crimes, they are far more likely to be the victim of crimes, with current estimates that mentally ill persons are the victims of violent acts at a rate eleven times higher than their non- mentally ill peers (Baun). Worse yet, the mentally ill population are frequently intimidated by law enforcement due to public estrangement and therefore less likely to report crimes committed against them. Even if they do report, crimes against the mentally ill are rarely widely published. Conversely, dramatic news reports surface frequently suggesting that mental illness may be involved in violent crimes before any actual evidence has shown whether the perpetrator has a mental condition. Fictional movies and television shows are no better, with the majority of mentally ill characters portrayed as either dangerous and criminally insane as in films like Psycho or The Silence of the Lambs; or as unstable and quick to anger. While stories about violent monsters may make for better headlines, this has far reaching consequences on public outlook on the mentally ill and ultimately in the lives of mentally ill citizens.
Some of these negative effects on the lives of the mentally ill population are seen in areas of personal and professional growth. The mentally ill read and take in media sources just as much as the average consumer and so are exposed to constant portrayal of those afflicted by mental illness as lesser members of society. The continuous onslaught of devaluing stereotypes frequently takes its toll on the self-worth and confidence of many mentally ill individuals. A report by Mind, a U.K. mental health charity, found that of 515 sufferers of various mental disorders surveyed, fifty percent reported feeling that media coverage had an overall negative effect on their mental health, twenty five percent reported having changed their minds on applying for a job or employment opportunity, and eight percent of those surveyed reported that media coverage had contributed to suicidal thoughts (Baun). The effects illustrated in this study are clearly not a unique finding as the mentally ill population overall experiences unemployment at a much higher rate than the general population and are far more likely to experience poverty. Mentally ill individuals are less likely to attain a higher education and frequently have less employment experience due to a combination of experience of symptoms and trepidation about facing potential stigma from their peers. Their fears are well founded; surveys of U.S. employers show that half of them are reluctant to hire someone with past psychiatric history or who is currently undergoing treatment for depression, and approximately seventy percent are reluctant to hire someone with a history of substance abuse or someone currently taking antipsychotic medication (Stuart, "Mental Illness"). This type of blatant discrimination is unfortunately all too common and rarely receives much attention from media sources, in direct contrast to the frequent unfavorable press the mentally ill population receives.
The unfavorable press and resulting insecurities also tends to negatively impact the mentally ill population's social network. A large portion of the mentally ill population have limited social circles and find establishing friendships or romantic relationships difficult. This is a multi-faceted issue resulting from a mixture of low self-worth on the part of the afflicted individuals, fear of stigma from their peers, and the general public's views on these individuals. Some mentally ill individuals avoid disclosing their illness to the people around them and live in constant fear of being discovered, while others avoid social contact to prevent facing potential stigma from peers. A supportive social network is often touted as being an extremely important for psychological wellbeing so this is particularly damaging in regard to the recovery of the mentally ill individual.
Recovery for the mentally ill individual is further impacted by negative media portrayal in the area of treatment through a combination of factors. The negative connotation associated with being a mental patient can be enough to make people avoid treatment for fear of public stigma, even when treatment is readily available and their conditions can be effectively managed. This fear of a stigmatizing label is one of the most frequently reported reasons people avoid behavioral health treatments (Corrigan, Druss, Perlick). Concerns over being seen as insane or incompetent are also high among the list of reasons people do not seek treatment. Sadly, in today's society these fears are not unfounded as discovery that one has participated in behavioral health treatment can negatively impact being hired for a job, joining the military, or even be used as a reason for the Department of Child Safety to begin investigating a parent.
Fear of the treatments themselves are another concern that is often cited; much of which stems directly from the dramatic and horrifying depictions of mental health treatments, professionals, and institutions, particularly in movies. Films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and many others frequently portray the practice of mental health treatment as medieval and horrifying. While modern mental health treatment has made huge improvements in the last several decades, cinematography seems to prefer the dramatic effect of horrifying practices like forced electro-shock therapy or lobotomy. Involuntary commitment is another feared practice due to its frequent portrayal in movies and other sources of pop-culture. While this seems like an understandable fear, involuntary commitment is extremely rare in today's behavioral health system and the chances of lasting commitment such as commonly depicted in many movies is nearly zero.
Despite much of what movies, media, and pop-culture depict about mental health treatments being blatantly incorrect, these suggestions still have a lasting effect on mentally ill individuals, the most obvious being treatment avoidance. A more subtle effect of these negative depictions is a decrease of the effectiveness of the treatments themselves, even when the individual actually attempts to receive care for their behavioral health ailment. Feelings that they are lesser human beings or not deserving of care and treatment are common among the mentally ill population due predominately to the constant onslaught of disparaging representations of the mentally ill. Coupled with doubts about treatment brought on by negative depictions of behavioral health care; many consumers receive treatment with extreme skepticism or do not fully give it a chance. In essence, the negative portrayals of the mentally ill lessens the likelihood of their recovering from the very thing they are being stigmatized for.
Fortunately, while the vast majority of national attention on mental illness is derogatory, there are organizations fighting for the rights of mentally ill individuals and lobbying to change legislation regarding what can be depicted about mental illness. Organizations such as NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Institute of Mental Health seek to educate the public on these conditions and diminish the stigma surrounding them, as well as to raise funds for research and treatment of mental health disorders. One of the first steps our nation needs to take is better education regarding these disorders and more realistic depictions of the people afflicted by them. The most important step will be taking into account the deleterious effects that constant negative depiction has on these individuals and regulating the types of reports and depictions being aired on national television. Similar strategies have already been implemented in other countries with some success, an Australian based advocacy group called SANE frequently reaches out to sources of stigmatizing imagery to request that their adverse effects be considered. The majority of companies approached willingly remove the material without further lobbying (Stuart, "Media Portrayal"). If U.S. consumers began collectively making clear to media sources that stereotypical and derogatory images of mental illness will no longer be tolerated in this nation it could mean a tremendous shift in the overall outlook for citizens facing mental disorders.
A tremendous amount of change will have to take place before people suffering from mental illnesses are truly afforded the respect they deserve and a lot of the change needs to be in the formatting of media depictions. Despite how widespread the problem of mental illness is, the nation still maintains a stereotypical and derogatory image of mental illness and those affected, with much of this view being propagated by mass media and movies. This issue is overlooked far too often by our nation overall, particularly when one considers the far reaching consequences for the afflicted individuals and even society as a whole. The negative perception of mental illness held by most of society and the stigmatizing depictions of the mentally ill by media and movies adversely impacts these individuals in virtually all areas of their lives. The most severe impacts are in the detrimental effects on public opinion, a decreased likelihood to obtain gainful employment or a supportive social network, and in a decreased probability in their seeking treatment. Change will not come easily, but it is attainable and is worth fighting for.
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