Mental illness is often portrayed as a villainous quality in popular culture and the mass media. Is this a problem, or just a bit of harmless fun?
In Australia, about 50% of people will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. Considering that percentage, it is likely that every person in the world will encounter someone with a mental illness at some point. Despite this, evidence suggests that most people get their information about these illnesses from the news media and pop culture, which are saturated with negative and inaccurate representations of people with these types of issues. This actively contributes to the stigma around these disorders, which has real world consequences. People with mental illness are not only discriminated against for jobs (a 2013 survey showed only 30% of people were okay with working with someone with a serious mental illness) and housing, but a 2002 survey showed that 50% of respondents were unwilling to spend an evening with a person suffering from a mental illness. This isolation makes coping with a mental health issue even harder.
Evidence shows that the most common source of information on mental illnesses is the mass media — both fictional and non-fictional. Even when someone has a personal experience with a mental illness, it tends to be with common disorders like depression and anxiety conditions compared with rarer conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Due to their relative rarity, and the fact that the stigma about these mental illnesses often prevents people from disclosing them, it is likely that the general understanding of rare disorders is fuelled almost exclusively by the media.
The villain always has a mental illness
Exposure to mental illness starts early for consumers of popular culture, with 25% of characters in G and PG movies having a psychiatric illness and a whopping 50% of kids' TV shows referring to mental illness. In movies, the vast majority of characters with psychiatric illnesses are portrayed as violent or threatening, while in kids' TV shows, most characters with a mental illness tend to have unattractive physical features. They are either villains, or in comic relief roles involving ridiculous, often self-harming, actions like hitting their own head with a hammer. This often triggers other characters to ignore or laugh at them.
Not only are children being taught that most people with mental illness are dangerous, they are also being taught that the way to deal with mentally ill people is with ridicule and isolation rather than empathy and treatment.
Comic books have been noted as another source for conflating mental illness with evil acts. For example, the Batman franchise has such a significant number of villains portrayed as having mental illnesses that Arkham Asylum is the de facto prison for the abundant, ‘criminally insane’ population. Not only this, but comics and comic book adaptations often use mental illness as the reason a ‘good’ person suddenly starts committing atrocious acts, for example the Green Goblin in Spiderman (2002), and the Joker in Batman (1989). The idea that a good person can suddenly become evil because of their mental illness is an incredibly dangerous one, especially considering the increasing popularity of comic-based media.
A very common mental disorder villains are shown to have is psychopathy. Psychopathy, now classified as Antisocial Personality Disorder in the DSM V, is a disorder in which a person is unable to empathise with others and is uninterested in learning to do so, often making them manipulative, impulsive and violent. This is not to be confused with psychosis or a psychotic episode. The Hollywood villain psychopath tends to be a super intelligent person with a successful career, who is calm and calculating with unmatched skill in killing people. This particular combination of traits is seen over and over in Hollywood, but is practically never seen in real people with psychopathy. Consider any number of James Bond villains or Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs (1991) — rarely will these characters fit the real criteria for psychopathy.
Despite the sheer number of psychopaths portrayed as villains in film, it does not follow that people with psychopathic traits are criminals. Indeed, there are similar levels of psychopathic traits in prison inmates and corporate leaders. The over-representation of villainous psychopaths, especially super-intelligent ones, is problematic. First, because the common conflation of psychopathy with psychosis, where those experiencing a psychotic episode can no longer discern what is real and what is not, further enforces the stereotype that people experiencing psychosis are dangerous. Second, it further compounds the idea that to commit evil acts you must have a mental health problem. This is not the case.
The news media’s problem with mental illness
Negative representations of mental illness in popular culture are further fuelled by how the news media reports on instances where people with mental illness commit acts considered villainous. The portrayal of those with a mental illness as inadequate or dangerous has been common since at least the 1950s. Mass shootings are possibly the most prevalent current example, with discussions taking place about people with mental illnesses accessing dangerous weapons. In the wake of many mass shootings the news media reports evidence of mental illness, promoting the idea that this alone could somehow account for a person’s actions. This only further pushes the idea that people who suffer from mental health issues are violent and dangerous.
In a recent survey, 30% and 60% of Americans thought that patients with depression and schizophrenia respectively were likely to commit a violent act. In reality, 95-97% of violence in the US is not attributable to mental illness, and patients are much, much more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else. It would follow that to isolate people because a disease that they live with is ‘scary’ is both cruel and incredibly harmful.
The sheer number of articles that talk about mental illness and violence together also perpetuates the idea of mentally ill people being dangerous or violent. In a recent study analysing news media in the US from 1995-2014, 38% of articles discussing mental health also referenced interpersonal violence, and 29% suicide, despite the latter being much, much more common — people with mental illness have a suicide rate seven times higher than the general population. Not only this, the number of stories that connect mental illness with violence on the first page compared with the second page actually increased in the last decade. This is not exclusive to the US — similar numbers have been seen in studies of media from the UK, Canada, Spain and New Zealand. In New Zealand, 61% of stories depicted dangerousness in stories of people with mental illness, and 47% mentioned criminality.
While these observations just show what people are exposed to in the news media, there are also studies that assess the effect these kinds of articles have on people’s attitudes. They consistently show that after reading an article where a person with a mental illness commits an act of violence, people’s negative attitudes towards those with mental illness increased. Even in cases when people read a story about a mass shooting that does not mention mental illness, the individual’s negative attitudes against mental illness increased. This indicates that the readers were automatically assuming the perpetrator had a mental illness.
Not only this, the vast majority of news stories depict people who are experiencing a psychotic episode without seeking treatment. When people read a description of someone in a psychotic state who is not receiving treatment for their illness, the reader’s personal stigma against mental illness generally increased.
In a recent study in the US, only 7% of news stories depicted a successful treatment/recovery, which is a gross misrepresentation of how successful treatment can be. This may not only discourage people from seeking treatment but convince the public that treatment doesn’t work, in turn increasing public stigma against mental illness. Additionally, many stories use the term mental illness rather than specifying which mental illness the person has, which contributes to the public’s lack of understanding of what these illnesses actually entail.
A way forward for representation
All this being said, if a person reads an informative article about the relevant mental illness or common misconceptions about mental illness, negatives effects are significantly reduced. Additional studies have gone on to show that media depictions of people that have successfully treated or recovered from their mental illness reduce social stigma.
Evidence suggests that long form stories like movies or TV shows that centre around a person or group facing an issue are more persuasive than short news stories, which are often biased to appeal to their audience. Not only this, more and more positive stories are coming out in both the news and fictional media than ever before.
On top of this, there is a role that we can take as individuals to help alleviate the problem. The first thing to do is to address our own preconceptions about mental illness: unless you were raised in a vacuum, you’ve been exposed to these negative images of mental illness and will have some inherent bias towards mental illnesses or people with mental illness.
The second is to challenge the language we use day to day that puts down people with mental health problems, or is an incorrect use of formal terminology to talk about mental illness. It's easy to say something is “driving me crazy” if you're not thinking much about it. The conflation of psychopath with psychotic, or schizophrenia with dissociative identity disorder (previously called multiple personality disorder), are common errors in the media that we can and should identify and correct.
The last challenge with language is to make sure that we do not make a person’s mental illness their whole identity. You wouldn’t say a person was cancerous; you’d refer to them as a person with cancer. And yet, it is not uncommon for a person with schizophrenia to be called a schizophrenic. This diminishes a person to their illness rather than seeing them as a more complex human being.
Popular culture and the media at large have a huge role to play in helping tip the balance of negative representations of mental illness. While improvements are being made in this area, the fight against stigma continues. With more positive representation, and our own contributions, people with mental illnesses will get to enjoy the next exciting instalment as well.
Edited by John Back