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Examining media representation of mental disorders

In the following assignment we will discuss the way of media representation of mental disorder. Additionally, a brief description of the film Me, Myself & Irene will take place in order to understand how the media misrepresent mental disorder. Furthermore, we will try show the real relationship between violence and mental disorder and thus, how accurate are media portrayals of this mental health problem. Ultimately, we will explain the impact of negative media representation on the mentally ill people and on the public.

Mass media representation of mental disorder is negative and describes mentally ill people as ‘monsters’. Media’s sovereign depictions of mental health problems appear to emphasize violence, dangerousness and criminality as long as “Poor, unbalanced press coverage of mental health issues fuels stigma and reduces the quality of life for sufferers, says a leading charity” (www.news.bbc.co.uk). This inappropriate representation causes severe stigma, moral panic, ostracism, as well as discrimination and victimization of these individuals.

Me, Myself & Irene, is a comedy film directed from the Farrelly brothers and was released in U.K on September 22, 2000. The plot of the movie is about one mentally ill man Charlie Baileygates who is passive and generally peaceful. He has 'split' personality and thus his alter ego (Hank) is aggressive, foul-mouthed and violent. Charlie has been diagnosed with delusionary schizophrenia with involuntary narcissistic rage, and whenever Charlie does not take his medication, Hunk takes his place causing several problems because of his turbulent mental state. His behaviour becomes obscene as he defecates on a neighbour's lawn and suckles from a stranger's breast.

This uncontrolled rage makes Hank to make fun of one man with albinism who explains that he killed his entire family but was released early just to make room for psychos. Both Charlie (good) and Hank (evil) try to protect Irene from a gang of corrupt cops who want her dead. Menacing Hank insults and punches nearly everyone he encounters and Irene apologises all the time for Hanks behaviour, explaining that he is a "schizo".

The film raised many dilemmas about its inappropriate presentation of mental health problems and lot of people argues that the film makes fun of mentally ill people and perpetuates ugly stigmas about mental illness. Me, Myself & Irene is a perfect example of what the media represents about the relationship between violence and mental disorder, and as Thornicroft (2006) claims, schizophrenia is often linked to violence in films and media. This can be seen in my case example, when ‘Hank’ assaults a group of people and also when starts to drown a young girl who has insulted him.

The media today has become more powerful agent than it was in the past. Many support that the function of media is vital within societies as they have been acclaimed as agents of the democratic institutions and guardians of citizen’s rights (McQuail, 2003). Others believe that the media just represent extremity and exaggeration to earn publicity, and as Bennett (1999) claims “News is the policy of hallucinations”.

However, it is a fact that people collect most of the information from the TV, newspapers and radio and as Thornicroft supports “the majority of people gather what they know about mental illnesses either from personal experience and contact with people with such conditions, or from the mass media” (Thornicroft, 2007).

Media portrayals are most of the time inaccurate and sensationalized, depicting mentally ill people as different, dangerous, unpredictable and violent. According to that and what we see from the film My, Myself & Irene, Hank unpredictably assaults whoever is in front of him, making strange movements and behaving abnormally (especially during the personality change from good Charlie to villain Hank). Such representations make people to misunderstand mental disorder, and this misrepresentation appears to play an active part in shaping and sustaining what mental illness means in our culture.

As probably already shown, I am not a totally unbiased observer of what is happening these days. I have a point of view, based on what I have read so far (research) and on personal experience (once, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a mentally ill friend) and what is going to be presented in this assignment convey this point of view.

I strongly believe that mass media portrayals of mental disorder are in the overwhelming majority inaccurate, inappropriate, unfavourable and harmful to mentally ill people. You only have to read a newspaper, switch on the TV or go to the cinema to spot such demeaning attitudes which can affect significant undesirable consequences. Such consequences will be discussed later in another chapter.

Mass media treat mental disorder as an object of ridicule, using psychiatric terminology inaccurately, and to overuse slang disrespectful terms for mental illness. For example, consider the use of Charlie’s diagnosis with delusionary schizophrenia with involuntary narcissistic rage. I am not an expert thus; I have had to do a research on that, just to find that, once again, misrepresentation took place and media used mental disorder as a source of humor. Britain's two largest mental health charities, Mind and National Schizophrenia Fellowship, have joined with the Royal College of Psychiatrists and claim that “people affected by schizophrenia don't switch from gentle to mental, as the billboard advertisements say, but are more often withdrawn. In fact, split personality is a totally different condition; it is a dissociative disorder rather than a psychotic illness”. Furthermore, they argue that the behaviour portrayed in the film, has nothing whatever to do with schizophrenia (www.findarticles.com).

I am a member of mass media consumer myself. I am continually entertained by the television programmes, movies and newspapers which I eagerly consume. However, this will not stop me from looking carefully and critically the media misrepresentation of mental health problems.

Comedy portrayals tend to depict mental illnesses as primarily involving little more than specific oddities that the individuals manifest repetitively. This notion of mental disorder as a humorous oddity is conveyed in our movie and movies, whatever their titles, continuously find ways to present mental illnesses as laughable and ridiculous. The fact that our film has a funny plot which involve violence, mental health, beautiful girls and bad guys hunting good guys, succeeds to attract viewer’s attention and interest (Charlie, Hank and Irene produce fun during the film for example when Charlie is trying to make Hank go away etc).

Media images are emotionally arousing, they do not only provide information, but they manipulate emotions in deliberate, skillful and effective way. Thus, I believe that it is very important to understand that movies which are not about mental illnesses, (our movie is categorized as comedy) they make viewers to merely absorb what they see, and therefore reinforce their biases and already inaccurate views, without being particularly aware that they are learning about mental illness. According to that, and as one film critic commended, “Comedies may be mindless, but that does not mean it is not affecting minds” (Wahl, 2003).

Society’s lack of knowledge, negative attitude and discriminatory behaviour is one of the central paradoxes because we live in a world in which up to half of all adults will be diagnosed with mental disorder in their lifetime. Furthermore, up to three-quarters of adult population know someone directly who has mental disorder, and yet we all act as if nobody knows anything (Thornicroft, 2006). Thus, I cannot understand why people who still feel threatened by it, allow stigma to thrive.

Mental disorder misrepresentation by the media also poses significant limitations in the initiatives to normalize mental health services within the community and therefore reduce harmful stigma. According to that, many mentally ill people face prejudice and severe discrimination when happens to live next to ‘healthy’ people “...Just because I have a mental health problem, I am now shunned, my life made even more difficult to live. Maria is a woman whose only crime is to live in an area in which a hostel for people with mental health problems is planned” (Thornicroft-Shunned-2006).

Public’s perception of mental illness is one of fear and paranoia, bordering on mass media as they often use words such as ‘nutter’, ‘psycho’ and ‘schizo’. This can be seen in the film Me, Myself & Irene, when Irene used to apology for Hanks behaviour, saying that he is a ‘schizo’. These words are derogatory which should not be used. In relation to this, I have the obligation to express my opinion that a civilization should be judged by how it behaves towards mentally ill. Likewise, I believe that the well-being of a social system depends on the prosperity of the teams within this social system. Thus, any discrimination and stigma makes social system dysfunctional as a whole.

Equally important to be mentioned is that during the movie, I have realized that misrepresentation of mental disorder not only took place on Charlie/Hank but there was a pervasive and persistent pattern to degrade mental disorder through Whiteys portrayal that according to the plot, have killed his entire family.

As mentioned before, everyday people are learning, from everyday sources, concerning mental illnesses and it appears unfortunate that the majority of those people learn about mental illness from what they see and hear in the mass media. However, even if I believe that the mass media are not wholly to blame for negative perceptions, but every time programmes, articles or film portrays a stereotype, they fail to clear up a misunderstanding about mental disorder and thus, this helps to perpetuate the myths.

In the following extract taken from the book Media madness: public images of mental illness (Wahl, 2003), there is an interesting, clear illustration of how the fearful mass media with the bold headlines tend to misrepresent mental disorder. The case is about a 30 year old woman who entered an elementary school in Winnetka, Illinois in May 1988 and shot a number of children.

“..Time’s May 30, 1988, headline introducing the story of this tragic incident was ‘One Lunatic, Three Guns’. The event was truly tragic, and it is likely that mental illness was a contributing factor in the woman’s actions. Referring to the mentally ill person involved as a ‘lunatic’, however, was both unnecessary (Newsweek’s article on the same incident was titled simply ‘I Have Hurt Some Children: Nightmare in Winnetka’) and inconsistent with standards applied to other groups. If the Winnetka school killing had been committed by someone in a wheelchair, it is unlikely that the Time’s headline would have read ‘One Cripple, Three Guns’. If the incident had involved a black woman, the headline would not have proclaimed ‘One Nigger, Three Guns’. There seems not to be the same hesitancy about using similarly disrespectful terms in referring to people with mental illnesses...” (www.time.com).

Hence, it is obvious that the mass media tend to misrepresent mental illness with disrespectful patterns, fueling public fear and letting stigma to thrive.

Stigma, in ancient Greece was bodily sign for those who were different. Stigmata were cut and burnt onto these different people (most of the time slaves) bodies to mark them as different from the rest population (http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk). Nowadays, mentally ill people are no longer physically mutilated, but still depreciation and hostile attitudes towards them can be just as hurtful to them. Individuals with mental health problems are stereotyped and stigmatized through the media as mad and violent, and thus this stigma causes serious obstacles in their life. Shame, blame and secrecy are taking place as they are the “black sheep of the family”. Mentally ill people experience severe stigma, discrimination, social exclusion and thus, isolation.

Media represents mentally disordered as individuals dangerous to the public, strange and unpredictable like Hank (after all, who would want to live next to somebody who parks a car inside a shop and fights a cow?). But, the relationship between violence and mental disorder is not what the mass media simply represents. It is a complex matter that needs further consideration and critical thinking. Thus, in the following paragraphs we will try to understand what the real relationship is.

Having said that the representation of a phenomenon by the media reflect the frame in which a phenomenon is socially placed, it is considered essential at this point to mention that it is much more likely for people to become victimized from "healthy" offenders than becoming a victim from a mentally disordered individual.

The depiction of the mentally ill individual as violent, unanticipated, dangerous and potential criminal appears to be extremely “popular” in the media's interest. Furthermore, in the connection between mental illness and violence, schizophrenia possesses a prominent place, mainly because of its complexity. According to this, researches in Great Britain shows that the frame of violence outclasses against other approaches in proportion 4:1 and the individuals with mental illness almost always are presented with negative way, as violent, murderers or rapists, or, in the better case, as objects of sneer (Wahl, 2003).

Additionally, and as empirical evidence show us, actually, the percentage of crimes of violence that has been committed by individuals with mental disturbance does not abstain perceptibly from what is attributed to the general population (Eronen et al., 1996), and the majority of acts of violence that are committed by mental patients are located in cases of incomplete therapeutic confrontation or even parallel use of substances (Swanson, 1997).

However, this study, and most of the studies conducted until recently, have focused on the rates of violence among people with mental disorder, based on those who were hospitalized (inpatients) or on rates of mentally ill which were arrested, convicted or incarcerated for violent crimes. For example, one national survey showed that the lifetime risk of schizophrenia was 5% among people convicted for homicide, a prevalence that is much higher than any published rate of schizophrenia in the general population (suggesting the relationship between schizophrenia and homicide). (http://content.nejm.org).

These studies, however, have many limitations as they only refer to individuals who were arrested, hospitalized or incarcerated which are by definition more likely to be violent or very ill and thus are not accurate representative of mentally ill in the general population.

However, according to a study conducted by NIMH Epidemiology Catchment Area it was found that mentally ill patients suffering from serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression were two to three times as likely as “healthy” people to be assaultive. At this point it is very important to mention that not all mental illnesses are linked to violence. For example, anxiety disorders do not increase the risk of violence. However, although the overwhelming majority of mentally ill with major depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder do not produce criminal behaviour, the presence of such disorders is significantly linked to an increased risk of violence.

Furthermore, this study which had representative sample of 17.803 subjects, showed that people with no mental health problems who abuse alcohol and drugs are seven times as likely to report a violent behaviour as those without substance abuse whereas, mentally ill with substance abuse compounds the increased risk of violence (alcohol and substance abuse far outweigh mental disorder in contributing violence) (http://content.nejm.org).

I am aware of the fact that the link between violence and mental disorder is not that strong. It is a controversial subject and hence, I believe that whether or not, mentally ill are more likely than others to engage in violent behaviour, the subject is not an idle and needs further consideration.

Thus, the public should not losing sight that most people who are violent are not mentally ill, and most people who are mentally ill are not violent. A look at the broader picture is essential, thus even though the media represents dramatic statistics in order to underscore their cases, mass media consumers should know that serious mental illness is quite rare and actually contributes little to the overall rate of violence in the general population.

Furthermore, it is crucial for us to understand that, most of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. More specifically, mentally ill are more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators of violence “current research shows that people with major mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of violence than other members of society” (http://www.cmha.ca).

Moreover, a 1996 Health Canada review of scientific articles found that the strongest predictor of violence and criminal behaviour is not major to mental illness, but past history of violence and criminality (http://www.cmha.ca).

To conclude, and as mentioned before, mental disorder plays no part in the majority of violent crimes committed in our society. However, mentally ill people who live in a stressful, unpredictable environment with little family or community support may be at risk high risk of becoming violent (in relation to our case, Charlie/Hank was away from his family and chased across the country by corrupt cops).

However, mental disorder misrepresentation by the media continues and it is not hard to understand why. Pamela Kalbfleisch claims, that “…nothing sells like an insane, unpredictable, undetected, glory killer on the loose who has caused a great deal of pain and anguish to the friends and relatives of the victim” (Wahl, 2003).

To the question why are people with mental disorder depicted consistently from the media in such inaccurate and inappropriate way (dangerous, different) the answer would be for profit. There is no question that mass media selection of what to present to the public is based on financial factors). Mass media operate for profit and wants to fulfill the public’s thirst and excitement for violence related to mental disorder, and thus should present what the public will buy. Hence, it was considered essential for the films trailer to show Charlie explaining that he suffers from delusionary schizophrenia with involuntary narcissistic rage so that, attract viewers attention.

Nevertheless, mental disorder produces profits (the film grossed $83 million in the USA according to The Guardian, July 28, 2000), (http://pb.rcpsych.org). Phenomena that are dramatic and puzzling have always been attractive to the public. Thus, what is more buy-able than a ’funny’ and unpredicted character acting like 'mad'. Mental illness is therefore, transformed into madness, and madness related to fun is even more ‘fascinating’. Media representation of serious mental disorder, challenge public’s appetite for arousal and excitement as stories about violent crime linked to mental illness provide titillation.

However, the most important thing during the movie is that there was an inappropriate and inaccurate depiction that whenever a mentally ill individual does not take the medication becomes villain (Hank wanted to fight a 10-year-old boy, he vanished a cow, almost drowned a young girl). Thus, this misrepresentation contains an explicit message that the public needs vigilant protection from mental patients.

Consequently, when viewers see such misrepresentation of mental disorder taking place, they become fearful that those ‘different’ people are highly likely to cause physical harm to other people. In other words, this pervasive portray of mentally ill as violent and extremely dangerous, will only lead media consumers to a general belief that mentally ill individuals will attack and therefore harm their community. Such belief will, in turn, create moral panic, and fear in the presence of mentally ill. After all, and as previously expressed, who would feel safe next to somebody who parks a car inside a shop? According to this, and as many believe that homelessness is closely related to mental disorder, moral panic lead to a random attack on a homeless man with schizophrenia in Toronto June 4, 2000 “...Fillmore was attacked as he lay sleeping in a bus shelter last June: he was stabbed and bled to death” (http://pb.rcpsych.org).

Just imagine that once patients leave psychiatric hospitals and therefore eager for support and acceptance, are instead treated with suspicion and fear. This misrepresentation will fuel panic and increase the prejudice and fear, and will make people to cross the street or exit buses or move away when they happen to be next of mentally ill. Moreover, it is highly likely that people who are persuaded by the media to ignore and fear of mentally ill, to become mentally ill. This, in turn, will lead them to self-loathing as they now know that they have become violent, dangerous, and different and so forth.

Moreover, mentally ill are bombarded with unfavourable information about them and therefore perceived as ‘threat’ (self-stigma) and thus, these attitudes towards them have devastating effect on their relationships, employment, housing and social functioning. The discrimination and stigma, excludes them from any social activity and the issue of employment as well (http://bjp.rcpsych.org). According to this, I believe that the most important step to recovery is to work, because of employment offers a social network, route out of poverty.

To conclude, I would like to mention that it is very sad when viewers (including myself) see the way films and mass media in general, portray people with mental disorder as if there is not anyone who is positive. But I guess, ‘non aggressive’ mentally ill do not sell. It is also very inappropriate the fact that the mass media misrepresent mentally ill people and portray them as monsters who want to harm us.

Additionally, I have concluded that the mass media inaccurately present the relationship between mental disorder and violence. Furthermore, I found that the mass media fuel public fear by generalizing all mental illnesses and stereotyping its patients. I also found that the impact of stigma and the discrimination against mentally ill is both common and severe.

Ultimately, I suggest that all the incorrect beliefs of previous generations should not be passing on to new. The stigmatizing and discriminating attitudes towards mentally ill people have been going on for a long time and it is time to stop as I am a believer that the way our society behaves the mentally ill, is not only an issue of mental health care but human rights issue. According to this, I would like to conclude with the following words written by a relative of one mentally ill patient.

“For me stigma means fear, resulting in a lack of confidence. Stigma is loss, resulting in unresolved mourning issues. Stigma is not having access to resources... Stigma is being invisible or being reviled, resulting in conflict. Stigma is lowered family esteem and intense shame, resulting in decreased self-worth. Stigma is secrecy... Stigma is anger, resulting in distance. Most importantly, stigma is hopelessness, resulting in helplessness.” (http://apt.rcpsych.org).

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