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Mental illness in media: Fact vs. fiction

Blumhouse Production
A depiction of dissociative identity disorder in the film “Split.”

It is a common notion that mental asylums are scary places filled with psychopaths and the deranged. So much so, that these places are often the setting of horror films. Except, they are not scary. They are a place for people at risk to themselves or others to heal and receive the help they need. Unfortunately, these negative perceptions of mental asylums stop people who need them from ever going. This is simply a negative consequence that the depiction of mental illness in entertainment, news, and social media perpetuates. 


The wrongful depiction of mental illness is most expected in entertainment, where over-dramatized interpretations are inevitable. Often, mentally ill people are portrayed in antagonistic or alluringly fetishized roles. Some common stereotypical roles would include a helpless depressed woman, a crazy but attractive seductress, a mad scientist, and a sly manipulator. It is important to note the stark contrast between male and female tropes when talking about mental illness. Despite the stigma behind the role, men still hold power or intellect, while women are simple, attractive, and interesting, all for the endearment of the male viewer. While these inaccurate antagonistic male archetypes in film have evolved to be more sympathetic to the viewer, such as in You (2018) and Split (2016), women’s roles have stayed relatively the same. Notably, in 13 Reasons Why (2017), the female lead is portrayed as attractively pained, but not crazy, and sarcastic and witty, but not threatening.


While it is expected that entertainment fosters this fictionalized view of mental illness, this depiction is still prevalent in media meant to be informative, such as the news. Crimes committed by mentally ill people are shown disproportionately on the news, further reinforcing the belief that those with mental illness are unsafe or dangerous.  Many large news corporations are aware of the interest mental illness piques in much of society, and will use it alongside exaggerated headlines to maximize views and profit. However, statistics show that those suffering from mental illness are more often victims of trauma, crime, and violence than perpetrators. Specifically, a research study conducted in 2014 by North Carolina State University revealed that ⅓ of American adults from a sample pool suffering from mental illness reported being victims of a violent crime, with 43.7% of these victims being victimized on multiple occasions.


In response to the stigma, many young people on social media have actively been using the platform as a means to destigmatize mental illness, and it is safe to say it has been working. While the stigma has substantially depleted within young people, this attempt at normalization has sensationalized mental illness and many youth see mental illness as a quirky accessory to make themselves more interesting. Symptoms are typically downplayed and seen as common, leading more inexperienced young people to jump to conclusions and identify with these illnesses. Suffering is seen as an alluring trait, rather than something to seek assistance for and attempt to manage. 


These incorrect notions of mental illness deter those suffering from it from seeking help, or even getting diagnosed due to the stigma and negative connotations the current media reinforces and nurtures. Fortunately, society has been taking bigger steps to help destigmatize mental illness, with it being a common topic in classroom discussions now more than ever before. These discussions that students have with educated adults and their peers are the correct steps to tackling ignorance and the neurotypical-centric lens that many view the world through.

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About the Contributor
Najiha Rahman, Contributor
Najiha Rahman is a contributor for the Kingsley Voice. She has been a part of the team since 2023.

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    nabihaApr 22, 2024 at 10:48 pm

    Very amazing work queen.