Mental Illness: Media’s Scapegoat?

Article by BRiYA - Titled: Mental Illness: Media’s Scapegoat?

You may know a lot about how media and advertising can affect the way you buy things as a consumer or change your opinion about a certain celebrity. But did you know that the media is the main source of mental illness [mis]education, and in turn, a perpetuator of the stigma seen today?

“Studies indicate that mass media is one of the public’s primary sources of information about disorders such as bipolar, schizophrenia and depression,” explains Kirstin Fawcett in “How Mental Illness is Misrepresented in the Media”

Having personal experience dealing with mental disorders, this is very troubling to me. To know that people are trying to make money off of selling people’s misfortunes and putting mental illness in a bad light just for ratings is troubling.

I remember getting diagnosed as bipolar and feeling like I was trapped and would forever be branded. It didn’t help that the portrayals of bipolar disorder on TV and in the movies are pushed to the extreme and only a snapshot of someone’s life, which is misleading.

Mental illness has been used by the media as a scapegoat to address and convey human feelings that we are afraid to admit we are all capable of possessing. Humans obviously have the capacity to express extreme emotions and behaviors. We can see this from the variants of the “normal” structure and socially acceptable conduct. These variants are whom society has been referring to as “mentally ill.”

(For the purpose of this article, when I use the term “the media” I am describing mass-consumed, influential forms of one-sided communication, particularly, film/television and theatre.)


Given the influential nature of popular culture, the danger of media portrayals of mental illness is a skewed representation of the actuality of a disorder. This could potentially lead to people not seeking help because it doesn’t “look like” what they saw on TV.

These exaggerated representations perpetuate the misunderstandings.

The media takes advantage of and exploits mental illness by using it as an uncreative explanation for “abnormal” behavior. Using it as justification for a character’s rash moods or violent actions. Dr. Rachel Proctor, an avid theatergoer agrees with the assessment that mental illness is being exploited in plotlines, writing:

[Mental illness acts] as an absolutely amazing dramatic tool. It allows people to act in a fashion so strange and fantastical in an otherwise rational and normal drama. Characters will scream and shout, will kill and love, will spend money and throw their life and love away, in a way that no ‘sane’ person ever would. Is this true of experiences of people with mental illness? Probably not, in the vast majority of cases.

Mental illness has been consistently used as a scapegoat to portray behaviors “out of the ordinary” rather than an accurate depiction of the reality of those with mental illness. Unfortunately though, the truth seems to lack enough dramatic flair.

The media gravitates to exacerbating a poorly constructed stereotype of the extremes in order to captivate audiences. Audiences are voyeuristic in nature and love to watch intense drama. Therefore, the media, trying to sell their product, sends incorrect messages about people who really do have mental illness and are trying to live stable lives.

What is actually interesting to watch is not the over-the-top behavior. What sells is the empathy we feel because underneath these depictions of mental illness there are themes of fear and loneliness. While the symptoms may be “abnormal,” the feelings evoked are shared and understood across demographics.


The media has chosen in the past to exploit these variations of “normal” human behavior to show characters with extreme personalities. Yet often, mental disorders are used as a representation of something other than mental illness itself.

Phillip S. Freeman, a Boston psychiatrist who has been a consultant on productions for the American Repertory Theater said that:

Mental illness is generally "used in a story to illustrate some idea about madness, not madness itself; it portrays a school of thought or particular ideas about the origins of mental illness." ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Equus,’ for example, don’t depict insanity as much as comment on stifling social conventions.

Source: “Mental Illness, the Musical, Aims for Truth”

The media’s portrayals of social conventions through the lens of mental illness as a scapegoat gives a misconstrued understanding and representation. This leads to a negative connotation for those who are diagnosed with mental illness.

Media portrayals of mental illness have become unsavory symbols of societal situations. There has been a stereotyping of symptoms as an entry point into addressing issues that could be discomforting in our culture.

The cost of this depiction has been to dehumanize people with mental illness. Community activist and psychologist Raymond G. Nairn wrote a review about mental illness being portrayed as the antiquated idea of madness. In this article he writes:

The hypothesis presented here is that depictions of persons with experience of mental illness draw upon archetypes of the mad man or woman. Those depictions fuel fears of unpredictable violence, social incompetence and contagion (Foucault, 1989) that position persons with a mental illness as unlike us: “strange, unpredictable, shocking and frightening.”

Source: “Media Portrayals of Mental Illness, or is it Madness? A Review.”


This idea of a madman or madwoman creates a separation. It is often an exaggerated representation that perpetuates a cultural stigma. The use of mental illness as an easy go-to for representing something unseemly in society can perpetuate the idea that those deemed “mentally ill” are unpleasant and should be watched carefully.

What is even more troubling is that this media influence permeates our perception of the world early on in our lives.

Dr. Otto Wahl and colleagues in their article, “The Depiction of Mental Illnesses on Children’s Television Programs,” state that studies of children’s media suggest there is a negative outlook of people with mental illness:

Negative conceptions of — and behavior toward — people with mental illnesses is being fostered in our next generations by what they view in media specifically targeted to youth.

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I posit that this originated from a noble cause. To teach children to be weary of strangers. By depicting people with peculiar behaviors as dangerous it could protect children. However, if that is true, it has transformed into a stigmatization towards people with mental illness.

The prevalence of this fear has become an issue that needs to be rectified. It has become normal for children to call someone “crazy” or a “nut” — which are derisive and do not actually convey the truth of the mental illness, but rather, an ambiguous connotation.

These terms seem to be specific to disorders that stem from the mind. For instance, no one would call someone with cancer a “looney.” This is an adulteration of the concept of mental illness and is perpetuated by the media:

Slang terms for mental illnesses — of a kind that would not be accepted for reference to other disabilities — appear to be widely used within children’s programming.

Source: “The Depiction of Mental Illnesses on Children’s Television Programs”

Slang does not represent the true nature of something, but instead, a debased version. If children are watching these shows and gaining information (however skewed) about what people with mental illness look like and how they behave and how to treat them, then we should make sure that we are representing healthy boundaries and beliefs.

We need to be conscious, and by this I mean aware and sensitive, to the material we produce and market. We need to focus less on consumerism and more responsibility on fair representation.


What is critical to note is that not only are these shows educating children and potentially introducing them to distorted perceptions about mental illness, they are also teaching them how to treat people afflicted with mental illness:

Children’s programs with mentally ill characters provided problematic models of how to behave toward those with psychiatric illnesses. Other characters in these programs demonstrated fear, rejection, and ridicule of people with mental illnesses.

Source: “The Depiction of Mental Illnesses on Children’s Television Programs”

The media is participating in the shaping of younger generations’ minds. While parents can try to monitor what their children watch by maturity level, these themes still pervade the seemingly harmless children’s television shows.

The general population’s main education about mental illness is received from the media. This has become a detriment to their understanding of the disorders.

It seems more likely that these ideas and attitudes are acquired gradually over a lifetime and that their roots are established in childhood…from an early age, [children] have acquired attitudes that recognize mental illnesses as somehow less desirable than other kinds of health conditions.

Source: “The Depiction of Mental Illnesses on Children’s Television Programs”

The exaggerated representations and the way the people are treated perpetuate the misunderstandings and it stifles conversations because of ignorance and fear.


A question that begs to be asked is, why? Why would the media perpetuate the idea of people with mental disorders as the “monsters” or the bad guys? And why always choose to portray the extreme states of the disease rather than giving a more accurate depiction? The answer is simple. The intent of the media is to sell intriguing drama. We see the manic parts and the suicidal parts that we are afraid exist inside all of us.

However, there’s a silver lining (playbook) to every cloud. Using media to educate and depict mental illness can be successful and respectful if it focuses on the overarching feelings that we all share as humans.

Not everyone understands the struggles of bipolar disorder and the havoc it can create. However, everyone at some stage in their life has felt the strangling feeling of loneliness and hopelessness.

The media needs to understand their influence and responsibility to consciously create material that positively portrays mental illness. Mental illness does not need to be seen with rose-colored glasses. Rather, it needs to positively portray how humans are overcoming and fighting against the pain and hurt of mental illness.

There needs to be a division between the mental illness and the person. This allows the audience to relate to the humanity and see the symptoms as separate from the individual.

We should see the pain and the struggle, but we also need to see the perseverance and will to overcome. The idea of triumph, not over the disease of bipolar, schizophrenia, or depression, but of the feeling of disempowerment and the sometimes-stifling symptoms of the disease is what reminds us that we are powerful and are participating in this shared human experience.

And that’s what we should be marketing to people: Humanity.

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