Misrepresentation of mental illness in the media

Rachel Yeates, Campus Carrier News Editor

American society is supposedly host to all kinds of diversity, yet television and film refuse to paint an accurate reflection of that diversity. Instead they homogenize and misrepresent important issues such as gender identity, racial and ethnic diversity, romantic and or sexual preference and mental illness.

Problems regarding misrepresentation and misconceptions about mental illness stems from the media’s refusal to identify characters with clear anxiety disorders, clinical depression or eating disorders – to name some of the most prevalent – as having those disorders. The traits are presented as character flaws or left undiscussed and underdeveloped.

And when the screenwriters feel like tossing out a bone and allow a character an official diagnosis, the illness often becomes the character’s defining characteristic. Emma Pillsbury from “Glee” is diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and aside from her red hair, that seems to be her only notable quality. In most of the episodes in which she makes an appearance, her story revolves around her OCD – not the obstacles OCD presents when dealing with other problems, but around her and other characters attempting to help her “overcome” her disability.

Her relationship with Mr. Schuster is unhealthily dependent, and neither he nor she seems to be able to accept her for who she is, OCD and all, as evidenced by his serenading her with the Coldplay song “Fix You.”

Some shows seem to be more progressive in their approach to mental illness, but still fall short.

Take “Orange is the New Black.” Writers granted Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren some character insight this past season, but even though Suzanne garnere a backstory and audience sympathy, Piper remains the only one in the show to address her by “Suzanne” rather than her disrespectful moniker, “Crazy Eyes.”

The other characters’ perception of Suzanne may be representative of the “real world,” but fiction and drama allows for the alteration of societal prejudices. I applaud the show for a diverse, inclusive and predominantly female cast, but think of the power media has to alter audience perceptions. Imagine if Suzanne were outwardly dealing with a defined mental illness and had the support and respect of her fellow inmates.

The amount of crime shows and horror films wherein the antagonist is discovered or assumed to have a mental illness or to be simply (and incorrectly) “crazy” is astounding. There is a constant correlation of “bad” and the “other” with those mental illness. There is little talk of treatment, therapy or a personality outside of the disability.

And it is the extreme cases that are getting more of the lime light. This perpetuates misconceptions as well as the idea that help can only be afforded to those who are past the breaking point. Those misconceptions keep people from seeking treatment and support.

 Mental illness is also being made into a cliché. The autistic boy who acts as a puzzle piece and plot device towards a neurotypical character’s self-actualization. The mom who is presented as failing as a mother because she was unable to “shake” her depression following the departure of a male romantic partner.

But there are positive and accurate representations out there. In “Wreck It Ralph,” Vanellope realizes she loves herself, “glitch” and all, “Phoebe in Wonderland” presents a relatable story of a young girl working to understand her Tourette Syndrome. “The Fosters” introduces a character’s selective mutism, and his family learns to respect his space while treating him as they usually would.

The good is out there, stories where family and friends respond with support rather than fear and misunderstanding, stories where these characters are fully developed and have complex life stories and realized personalities, stories that see people as people rather than plot devices or something to satiate those who only want to see themselves in the shows and movies in which their world is submersed.

The problem lies in getting these stories more attention and correcting the ones that stigmatize and alienate.

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