Tackling the perception of mental health in Ireland, Louise Dolphin writes that it’s time our society stops stereotyping those suffering from psychological distress
There is a long overdue societal push to challenge stigmatising attitudes toward mental illness. One of the challenges of anti-stigma campaigns is to break down harmful, hurtful, and often unfounded stereotypes associated with mental illness. Arguably the most stigmatising stereotype is that people with mental illnesses are dangerous or violent.
While some mental illnesses, such as the acute stage of some psychotic disorders, have aggression and violence as possible associated features, the vast majority of violent acts are committed by people without a diagnosis of a mental illness. However, this violent stereotype is often exaggerated and propagated by the media.
Take for example the front page of the Sun just a number of weeks ago, which read: “1,200 killed by mental patients.” This headline, understandably, infuriated many anti-stigma campaigners.
While the article itself acknowledged that the numbers of homicides by people with mental illness has actually stayed the same for decades, this information is vastly outweighed by such a sensationalist, stigma-fuelling headline. It also fails to alert readers to the reality: that the vast majority of people using mental health services pose no threat to others.
Statistics from Time to Change, England’s largest programme to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination, force us to rethink the violent mental illness stereotype.
Firstly, 95% of homicides are committed by people who have no history of mental health issues. Secondly, people with mental health problems are a greater danger to themselves than they are to others. Finally, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of a crime.
Another stigma-fuelling instance, which occurred just before Halloween this year, was the availability of the mental patient fancy dress costume and psycho ward outfit in ASDA and Tesco respectively. The ASDA costume included ragged clothing, a mask, fake blood and a fake meat cleaver, while Tesco’s orange boiler suit came with a plastic jaw restraint and offered to “complete the look” with a machete. Following harsh criticism, both stores withdrew the outfits, apologised for any offence caused and agreed to make donations to Mind, a mental health charity.
Issues such as this, which fuel a ridiculous stereotype of mental health, may be preventing young teenagers from disclosing their problems to others. Recent UCD graduate, Dr Lynn McKeague, conducted PhD research on the stigma experiences of children and teenagers living with a mental health problem in Ireland.
A pertinent quote from her research was from a 14-year-old female. She was concerned that if she disclosed her diagnosis, peers might spread the idea that she was different to everyone else, “telling people that, you know, I’m weird or abnormal or stupid or a freak or dangerous or something.”
I find it abhorrent that young Irish teenagers facing mental health problems are also struggling with worry about disclosing their issues to peers and friends, a group we assume to be supportive to them when they need it.
Fear of disclosure is linked to reduced likelihood to seek help for problems and it is appalling that society’s negative, unfair, and often misguided views on mental health could hinder someone from seeking the help they need.
While media headlines pitched to adults can augment stigmatising stereotypes, evidence suggests that media reaching very young children is also negatively depicting mental illness.
Researchers have found the widespread presentation of characters with mental illness in children’s books, films and television as violent, aggressive, and fear-inducing. According to Professor Otto Wahl, in ‘Depictions of Mental Illness in Children’s Media’, “The image of persons with psychiatric disorders as unattractive, violent, and criminal… appears common in children’s media, and references to mental illnesses are typically used to disparage and ridicule.”
Even our beloved Disney movies bear the blame of negative representations. A 2004 study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that a total of 85% of Disney animated films contained references to characters with mental illness.
The study claims that most of the characters referred to as mentally ill serve as objects of derision or amusement. For example, in The Lion King, the hyenas are depicted as mentally ill.
Mental illness is also projected as something that turns people into villains. In 102 Dalmatians, Cruella De Vil is in a psychiatric ward at the beginning of the film. We cannot assume that children are passive recipients of these messages. They actively engage in media and therefore more research is warranted on the varied sources of information that children might use in forming an understanding of mental health problems.
It is sad and harmful that while many campaigns, organisations and individuals are trying to break down barriers by discussing and tackling mental illness stigma, stereotypes are still exaggerated and sensationalised through various forms of media.
We need more critical thought among the public. Often we are happy to accept a sensationalist headline; a soundbite that allows us to apply a heuristic mental shortcut that facilitates making quick, but potentially biased judgments.
What is needed here is an emphasis on individuality. To treat each case, each person, as a story in its own right and not make lazy inferences and decisions about people based on sensationalist and often misguided evidence. Challenge stereotypes you hold; you’d be surprised how often you are wrong.