Mental Health in Media – Help or Hindrance?

The way mental illness is illustrated in the media is so compelling, especially for the youth of today. It is incredibly influential and powerful in educating the public. The question is… Does that make media our friend or foe?

Original illustration by Molly Biscoe

So let’s break the information down…. 

For decades, media has given a very negative view of mental health by criminalising, stigmatising and dramatising sufferers of mental illness(es). 

Trivialisation is something that you see a lot of in the media. Media often promotes mental illness as ‘not being as bad as you think it is’, which has caused the public to have a lack of real understanding about people with mental health, and fear always goes hand in hand with the unknown…. 

People with mental illnesses(es) like schizophrenia/bipolar have been seen to be dangerous- and people with conditions such as these ‘must be isolated’. This is partly down to the fact that media accounts have seemed to focus on the individual with mental health illness(es) rather than addressing mental illness as a support and acceptance issue. This has caused media consumers to be very quick to blame a person’s (criminal) actions on any diagnosed mental health conditions. The public forget to recognise factors that may of added to their difficulties and worsened their state of mind. They assume that people commit heinous crimes because they’re ‘crazy’, rather than addressing the lack of support they’ve had, or the discrimination and stigmatisation that they’ve probably suffered from on a daily basis. 

People who fear mental illness are vulnerable to media portrayals. Probably the most common and downgrading stigmatisation of mental health is how people with schizophrenia have been presented as ‘psycho killers’ and ‘homicidal maniacs’ in films and TV dramas. This misinformation criminalises people with conditions such as these in the public’s eyes. 

Original illustration by Molly Biscoe

Derogatory headlines in newspapers criminalising people living with mental health illness(es) have been very common in that past. For example: ‘GET THE VIOLENT CRAZIES OFF OUR STREETS’, ‘PSYCHO CABBIE’S RAMPAGE ON CCTV’, ‘KILLER PILOT SUFFERED FROM DEPRESSION’ and ‘1,200 KILLED BY MENTAL PATIENTS’ are all published headlines that have caused the public to fear, hate and shame people with mental health issues. The public have been deceived by displays like these, of very rare occurrences when someone struggling with mental health illness(es) does cause harm to somebody else or themselves. When, in reality, thousands of people who live with the same condition have families and friends and push on with their lives with little to no support because of this horrible and misguided stigma. Have you ever thought to yourself – why don’t we hear any success stories? I guess it doesn’t really cross people’s minds, does it? But shouldn’t it? 

Though, as the popularity of TV and technology has grown, people have used media as a place to raise awareness and discuss mental illness. This has allowed society to be more aware of mental health problems and has helped to educate people on what symptoms to look for and what support is available to them. (I think it’s also made people living with these conditions, realised that actually – it’s pretty damn normal!) 

Original illustration by Molly Biscoe

An encouraging sign that mental health depictions have become more positive is that more story-lines have attempted to portray fewer characters with mental health illness(es) as dangerous and violent. This can encourage people to speak up about their issues without fear of judgement and can help to educate people on recognising illness and/or how to seek help in a safe way. 

In recent years we have also seen several attempts to reduce the stigma related to mental illness. The media plays a huge part in continuing this stigma, though it also has a lot of power towards changing it…. There’s been a growth of a relatively new narrative, focusing on the damaging stigma a character with mental health faces on a day to day basis and how it impacts their life and recovery. As well as that, newspaper coverage of mental illness has become less stigmatised.

So what’s the point of this blog then? If media has become open to discussion about mental illness then why do we continue to talk about it as if it’s still such a taboo subject? Well… regardless of the fact that people are starting to recognise that people with mental health problems have a medical condition that needs treatment and support, media reports still often link mental illness to violence and crime. And as a community, we often neglect to address the pressure put on people living with mental health issues. Especially young people.

Original illustration by Molly Biscoe

Unfortunately, all the good work that people put into breaking down stigma surrounding mental illness is slowly being undone by – personally, what I think is – the darker side of media…

Social media is dominantly controlled and over ruled by the younger generation, and has been proven to make people unhappy. Though what people don’t know is that you can actually develop real mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and sleep issues through use of social media. 

The pressure put on young people through social media regarding the way you’re ‘meant’ to look is extremely degrading and damaging. It destroys self-confidence and self-worth, which can lead to depression and anxiety. 

Original illustration by Molly Biscoe

(Comedian) Louisa Omeilan expressed in ‘Am I right ladies?’, one of her stand-up performances, ‘it seems that body image, and body size, and body weight and sex is used as a currency to value us – especially women.’ Which is so true!  Living as a young person in this generation, I know how easy it is to become envious of other people’s life style and appearance. And how emotionally draining it can be, comparing yourself to ‘picture perfect’ people on a phone screen. 

Being a victim of mental illnesses and abuse has also been extremely romanticised and glamourised on social media. Conditions such as bipolar, anxiety and depression have all been turned into a trend… and terminology for different mental health illnesses have been normalised. 

The misuse and overuse of mental health terminology is a huge issue. And the amount of active sharing of self-harm, suicide and mental illness-related posts, pictures and videos… is unbelievable. People have begun to throw terms around every time something slightly inconvenient happens to them… ‘Omg, he doesn’t like me back, I’m actually gonna go kms.’, ‘I couldn’t sleep at all last night, I swear I have insomnia.’, ‘Omg! Don’t jump out on me! I nearly had a panic attack!’. How is that fair? They are all pretty normal things to go through, and although some people may find things difficult and upsetting, those feelings are normal. How is it fair to put your friends and family through the worry that you might actually hurt yourself? Or that there’s something wrong with you, when there might not be?

If you are genuinely worried that there is something more going on with you than others may think, then seek help.

It’s not shameful, and there are a lot of support networks out there if you just look. DON’T AIR IT ON SOCIAL MEDIA… 

Original illustration by Molly Biscoe

It is incredibly damaging to those who are really living with mental illness. It makes it seem as if their feelings are trivial. Behaviour like this also has an immense knock-on effect; leading people to ignore serious cries for help and refuse to listen to what somebody dealing with real mental health issues are trying to say. This causes people to miss out on the support they might need and making them vulnerable to actually hurt themselves or even end their lives. 

So how can we stop this from carrying on? The answer is… we can’t. No one can control what people share on media and social media. But we can control what we post ourselves. 

I know that sounds cliché. There was a long period of time where I was given a lot of abuse over social media. I have received messages from people my own age, ex’s and even adults, attacking personal experiences in my life. They attacked the abuse I suffered as a child by calling me a liar, telling me to ‘go get raped again’ and calling me a ‘rape child’. People who me and my family considered as close friends, and were a big part of my life throughout my childhood (and during the time that I was being abused) – posted statuses naming me a liar and gathered a group of people who publicly battered me online. The threats came, and some threats were followed through. I was terrified to leave the house. But somehow, the name calling was worse than being hit. I was so humiliated. I regretted ever speaking about my abuse. I regretted trusting people.. And to think – all of this s**t started purely because me and my best friend fell out, so our parents did too. Sounds stupid, right? But that was it. A childish fallout sparked a feud that escalated into violent attacks and harassment in and out of school. (It’s no wonder that the escalating use of social media and the rise of mental health issues in schools seem to coincide!) The scary thing is, that it is so easy to do – all thanks to social media. I was sucked into the arguments out of fear that everyone would listen to what people had to say about me if I didn’t defend myself. I tried to use intelligence instead of insults to win the arguments, but there was no winning. I soon turned into somebody that I hated, and subconsciously stooped to their level of nastiness. (Barring one occasion) I didn’t get into any physical fights, though my desperate need to be believed and to be seen as a stronger person caused me to hurt them too. I don’t know why I didn’t just block or ignore them. It’s like I didn’t even know I could… 

It’s only when I started using social media in a positive way that the arguments stopped. The threats stopped. And I managed to get away from all the aggression. 

It’s down to us to change how social media is used. If you, as a person, can steer clear of stereotypes and discrimination displayed in media and start using social media to talk about something you care about that benefits people – you can make a difference. We will never live in world without social media and technology again, but we can use it to help rather than destroy people. 

Original illustration by Molly Biscoe

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. 

In England, 1 in 6 people report experience a common mental health problem (such as anxiety or depression) in any given week, and it can hit anyone at anytime. 

So be patient, understanding and use social media to reach out. 

Mental health doesn’t define you. And you are not alone. 

Samaritans :- 116 123 📞

(24 hour helpline)

Blog written by Lowenna, a participant of The Positive People project. A programme delivering two contracts in Cornwall; Coast to Coast and South East Cornwall. The projects will help over 2,300 individuals who are out of work to build their confidence and develop their skills. This is funded by The Big lottery and European Social Fund.