Madness: Mental Illness and the Media

What comes to mind when you hear the words bipolar or depressed?

Do you envision a person working with their doctors and loved ones to manage a chemical imbalance that affects their moods and actions? Or have your ideas about mental illness come from television and movies?

Hollywood depictions of this population have long been criticized for exaggerating and sensationalizing the details of mental illness. Films focusing on the scary, dangerous, and unpredictable mentally ill continue to be made each year. But rarely are the on-screen portrayals a true mirror to the life of a mentally ill person.

Therapy intern and Master of Social Work(MSW) student, Seva Felton feels that better depictions of mental illness could positively impact society.

“One thing that I would like to see a little bit more is positive stories about mental illness and more normalization of what mental illness is,” Felton said.

Felton lives and works in Iowa, a state with fewer resources for mental health than most any other. With less opportunities to receive care, Felton tends to see patients when something drastic has happened rather than being able to provide continuous care.

“There is so much pressure to be well that they don’t seek actual treatment,” she explained. “Mental illness is seen as a very different thing than physical illness. It’s a very different reaction when someone tells their family that they have a mental illness.”

Not all representations are bad; Lady Dynamite and Homeland get Felton’s stamp of approval. These shows, she says, are “about a person with a mental illness but that isn’t all that they are”.

Mobile Crisis Clinician, Emily Stanford, who was hard pressed to name a bipolar or depressed character in any of the entertainment she consumes, believes that including a mental health aspect in the average family show could go a long way in repairing some of the damage done.

“Mental illness might seem really foreign to people when in reality they have friends and coworkers who experience that and it’s not something that comes up often because it’s not all encompassing; it’s just one aspect of their life,” Stanford explained.

This underlying preconception isn’t exclusive to the general public but affects professionals working in proximity to the mentally ill. Emergency responders, educators and even social workers who aren’t specifically focused on the mentally ill can be guilty of this as well, according to Stanford.

When working with the police to assess mental health crisis, Stanford often finds herself up against these notions.

“The real focus turns to the fact that they have bipolar disorder. Like that disorder means that they somehow are going to explode,” Stanford recalls.

Kelcey Nichols, a psychiatric technician and MSW student, began working in mental health with clients who were also dealing with substance abuse issues and found herself being forced to forget everything she thought that she’d known about who these people might be.

“People aren’t angry because of a mental illness. There are a lot of angry people in the world but even if they have a diagnosis, their every action isn’t connected to that and we can’t predict their actions based on stereotypes,” Nichols said.

In truth, bipolar people are no more violent than the average person when their illness is being properly managed. Threat of violence increases only during a manic episode or in conjunction with substance abuse but that isn’t the norm.  Despite the constant mention of mental illness after a violent crime reporting, Stanford declares that she doesn’t feel unsafe at work.

This contradicts with characters such as Empire’s Andre Lyon, who some say is the worst case scenario of bipolar disorder. Lyon, goes off his meds early in the first season and begins having bouts of mania. He puts himself in dangerous situations, over-spends, is hyper sexual and angry. On the flip side, there is a scene where he cries in the shower fully clothed. Lyon appears to cycle rapidly and unrealistically.

Stanford warns that the mentally ill population isn’t the only group affected by the media slant on mental illness; the people in power are absorbing the information as well. The people who are making the laws are seeing mental health as unimportant and the mentally ill as dangerous or silly and she wonders how they can begin to care with this misinformation in circulation.

“To become a priority there has be some sort of human face that makes people relate, care and understand that this is something that we should be worrying about. Ideally, as a crisis worker, I shouldn’t be very busy,” Stanford said.

During a visit to Ottawa University in 2011, poet, writer and mental health advocate Bassey Ikpi  described the circumstances of her breakdown and subsequent treatment for Bipolar II disorder.

“I realized that there was something wrong and I didn’t know what was wrong but I knew that if I could just keep running from it, I’d be ok. So, I just kept running and running and running until this incident happened and I completely hit a wall,” Ikpi explained.

She went on to speak about finally seeing bipolar disorder in a storyline on one of her favorite shows at the time-Girlfriends. Unfortunately, the episode didn’t deliver the validation that she sought; it brought her to tears.

“I felt like this is an opportunity that they had to educate millions of people at once and instead they mis-educated a lot of people at once,” Ikpi said.

Morgan Menefee, a 29-year-old teacher from Eastern Kansas grew up very conservative, religious and has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

As a teenager, Menefee saw mental illness depicted on television shows like Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill but couldn’t relate to the portrayals; this allowed her to ignore her symptoms and avoid treatment until she attempted suicide.

Menefee was inspired by the movement To Write Love on Her Arms. TWLONA assists those struggling with self harm, depression and addiction in recovery and treatment.

“Religion and how I was seeing depression defined for me in media were big barriers to treatment for me,” Menefee explained.

Now, three years removed from her suicide attempt and beginning treatment, Menefee is outspoken about her past especially to the teenagers that she teaches.

“The reaction to my depression from them was actually shock because they had somewhere garnered this idea that depression means that you stay in bed all day,” Menefee said.

Another inspired tattoo of a semicolon sits above Menefee’s latest ink. A raven-with her scars showing through- has given Menefee several opportunities to speak candidly about her past.

This kind of response is not uncommon. Nichols recalls how concerned her friends and family were when she would see and speak with clients in public; they feared for her safety among “crazy people”.

Continuing to depict people living with mental illnesses as dangerous, useless or throw away characters despite factual evidence is doing a disservice to viewers and the mental health community.  Studies have shown that the views communicated by the media on mental illness are even less in line with professionals than that of the average person. Yet 87% of people list television as a source of information on mental illness.

“I see where it’s a risk for them because the audience isn’t getting that excitement but I would like to see media do their homework,” Menefee said. “I do think there is a lot of benefit for people to see it portrayed realistically.”


Keep up with the mental health community on twitter by following the hashtag #mentalillness