On a recent Halloween special of the X Factor, contestant Lola Saunders sang Crazy by Gnarls Barkley. When the song came under fire from Simon Cowell for not being Halloween enough, Saunders’ mentor, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, said the performance was scary because: “[the theme] was crazy … there were people in straitjackets”. And in that moment it summed up the problem: that mental illness is something we should be afraid of.
Mental health charities criticised the choice of song, 69 people complained to ITV and another 61 to TV watchdog Ofcom. Compared to the 317 that Lady Gaga’s skimpy outfit received last year, though, this number seems much less substantial.
So why did this scary image of mental illness fail to shock us? It could be because the negative image is so highly normalised by the media – both on TV and in newspapers – now that we’re all used to it.
On television mentally ill characters are often more violent, dangerous and unpredictable than other characters. In reality, those with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrator – two and a half times more likely. In fact, just being male makes you more of a risk to the general population than being mentally ill.
Perception and reality
So how does the media alter our perceptions of reality? Well it’s very good at telling us what our perceptions and values should be. Exposure to just one media image of violent mental illness increases the expectation that those labelled as mentally ill will physically harm others.
Two theories can help us understand why the media has such an impact. The first is cultivation theory, which suggests that repeated exposure to consistent messages on TV moulds our values to fit with those that are presented to us. This means that the more we see these false realities, the more they become part of our actual reality. The result is that those who receive most of their information through electronic media are less tolerant and more fearful toward mental disorders.
The second theory is social learning theory, which tells us that we learn vicariously through observing others. In evolutionary terms, it makes sense to quickly accept dangers that are shown to us. To not take these messages on board can place our lives in danger if we later encounter the threat ourselves. Unfortunately, when the messages we receive are incorrect, this mechanism can lead to misplaced fear and prejudice.
Impact on those with mental illnesses
A report put together by the mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, concluded that negative media coverage of mental disorders has a direct and damaging impact on the lives of people with such conditions. Those surveyed said that the media exacerbated their symptoms – increasing their social withdrawal, lowering their self esteem and, ultimately, increasing their depression and anxiety.
The stigma reinforced by the media creates this shame among sufferers, so much so that they become reluctant to tell anyone about their illness. This can cause a delay in seeking treatment and therefore recovery.
Media can support change
When you actually meet members of a stigmatised group you generally realise that that these negative stereotypes are unfounded. But unfortunately, as this very stigma prevents people from disclosing their illness, we often don’t even know that we have had these interactions. So we need to look to other ways of eliminating stigma.
By showing mental illness in a more realistic light, the media can create a more positive, realistic image. Soap operas are beginning to do this; they often work with mental health charities to portray mental disorders in an accurate and sympathetic way.
One EastEnders storyline featured the character Stacey Slater struggling with bipolar disorder and was credited with doubling the number of young people calling a bipolar helpline.
Factual shows such as Channel 4’s Bedlam allow us to see firsthand the experiences of patients and staff on psychiatric wards, and have also been commended for challenging the myths surrounding mental disorders.
This new attitude in this quarter of the media is beginning to change the attitude of the public towards mental illness but the X Factor has proved we still have a way to go yet. As one in four people suffer from a mental disorder, it is likely that we have all had at least one positive interaction with mental illness whether we know it or not. In the future will we be more shocked when it is used as a horror accessory? And maybe people will be more likely to seek out help for themselves or friends rather than suffer in silence.