Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, dementia. These are mental illnesses plaguing some of the most popular characters in television and film. Their stories captivate us, providing a glimpse into the lives of troubled protagonists who are struggling to achieve their goals while maintaining a semblance of normalcy. These characters are compelling and relatable… or at least they would be if they were portrayed accurately.

Myths perpetuated by the media

While it’s commendable that today’s writers are more open to incorporating mental health into their scripts, the media still has a long way to go when it comes to realistically depicting people with mental illnesses. For example, PsychCentral states the media predominantly contributes to misconceptions about mental illness as causing violence and erratic behaviour. You’ve probably noticed this in news coverage about mass shootings and domestic terror plots. However, people coping with psychological problems are actually two and a half times more likely to be victims of violence than the general population, as this study found. Other common myths include:

  • You can tell someone is mentally ill by looking at them.
  • People don’t willingly seek treatment.
  • Treatment is ineffective and incorporates barbaric methods.
  • Mental institutions are terrifying places of neglect.
  • The symptoms of mental illness can be suppressed by a cocktail of pills.

Other worrisome inaccuracies

The lack of diversity in characters dealing with mental illness is also problematic. This Vulture article aptly points out that mental health is still very much a taboo topic in many cultures, and that more diversity on screen would help reduce the stigma. Similarly, the media needs to recognize that there’s a great variety of psychological conditions, and that each manifests on its own spectrum of severity. Describing these illnesses in film, news, and tv as extremely disruptive and completely debilitating robs the audience of a true understanding of these mental illnesses and further alienates people who are trying to cope with them.

Proper depictions of mental illness

Despite the confusion and misinformation out there, some tv shows and movies do a solid job of characterizing psychological illnesses. According to Proud2BMe, some of those programs include Jessica Jones, Wilfred, Scream, Orange is the New Black, and My Mad Fat Diary. What separates shows like these from the rest is their ability to demonstrate the humanity and ordinariness of people dealing with mental health issues. Instead of being hopeless caricatures, they are as engaging and complex as the real people on which they are based.

Learn more about mental health

We think it’s incredibly important for everyone to understand mental health, so we’ve built up an online library of hundreds of expert-led videos on the subject. Click here if you’d like to access a sample of our resources.

Also published on Medium.

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