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DepressionMental health and society

Perceptions of mental illness: The media and mental health

21 February 2017

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You wouldn’t blame someone with breast cancer or cystic fibrosis for their disease, would you? We know they are caused by impaired biological mechanisms. Lifestyle choices can exacerbate risk but there is less stigma associated with suffering from a ‘physical’ rather than mental illness.  With both types of illness stigma stems from a lack of understanding. If someone walks down the street arguing with themselves you avoid them and think “that person is crazy”. You can’t help it, you avoid their gaze and hurry on by, you don’t want to get involved with something so out of the ordinary. But why? Why should we assign blame to people for something that is not their fault when we wouldn’t do it for other diseases?

The way mental health conditions are portrayed in the media reinforces our mistrust and negative reaction to sufferers. Time and time again they are depicted as evil, deceitful and intending harm, despite this rarely being the case. Empathising with people who suffer from mental illness and commit crime doesn’t detract from what they do, but understanding why they may have behaved in that way is vital to preventing it happening again.

In 2015 a pilot crashed a passenger plane in the Alps in an apparent suicide. It later came out that he had been battling depression for a long time. The majority of the coverage painted him as devious for hiding his illness and, in some reports, just waiting for the opportunity to harm others. What he did was horrible, and heart-breaking for those who lost loved ones, and it reinforces our aversion to dealing with someone with suicidal tendencies. Despite our gut reaction to this we must look at why he was suffering and whether he was he receiving suitable help. This will help us understand why he did it, if it could have been prevented and to stop anyone else from doing it again. The pressure of his job may have played a role in his depression and subsequent suicide. It has been highlighted how stressful a pilot’s life can be, on top of all the usual stresses people deal with, and how difficult and career ending it can be to seek help. If society were more accepting of mental health disorders and there was less attached stigma to a diagnosis people may be more willing to seek help, thus reducing the chance of something like this occurring.

Should we prevent someone doing a job simply because they have a mental health condition? You wouldn’t do the same for someone with a physical illnesses.  There will be some instances where it just isn’t feasible for them to carry out a job, but blanket banning someone from a career due to a mental health diagnosis is unreasonable. This is especially pertinent as although many disorders are given one name they often describe a spectrum of conditions and symptoms. Therefore, not everyone with a condition will behave in the same manner, and those who are more able to cope socially may be penalised for having a related condition. Discounting a proportion of society based on the actions of one person is detrimental to everyone. Cases like this flight, with such negative coverage and discussion of his diagnosis of depression, further fuels mistrust and suspicion. This it in turn makes it harder for those suffering to seek help, increasing the likelihood of it happening again.

Imagine if you were made redundant, or that you just lost someone close to you. You don’t think you cope anymore and all you want to do is stop but it has been drummed into you by friends, family and the media that being depressed, or needing help is weak and pathetic so you try to struggle by alone. It becomes easy to see how people end up in terrible situations, possibly even taking their own life. It will take time to change the public’s opinion but the media could be so powerful in changing our attitudes towards mental health, especially through social media campaigns such as Time to Change and Rethink Mental Illness. The media has been used to provide insight into the lives of sufferers before. A collaboration between Bryan Charnley and a journalist set out to illustrate his experiences of schizophrenia through self-portraits, whilst taking varying degrees of medication. Tragically, it ended with Bryan taking his own life, but his haunting, and increasingly distressing paintings, live on.  Increasing our exposure to messages of support, reminding people that they are not alone and that there is no shame in suffering from mental health conditions, and providing them with information on how to get help is a vital step forward in reducing stigma.

So why is our gut reaction to mental health generally so negative? Is it purely due to misinformation and fear portrayed by the majority of the media coverage? Can we combat the stigma with our rapidly increasing understanding of the biological basis of these diseases?

If these questions interest you, read on to my next article ‘Perceptions of mental illness: Do biological explanations reduce stigma?’