Mental Health Portrayal and Modern Media


Mental health is often misinterpreted and poorly portrayed in our media. Though some could argue with this, if you take a look at the bigger picture, you will see how clouded the information on mental illness is to the masses. From very small issues, like very clean and neat people chalking their behavior up to “OCD” without a real understanding of how crippling the disorder is, to people joking about having bipolar disorder when their mood changes a little too quickly. Though we have definitely made strides towards a better understanding of these complicated issues, it’s not enough — especially when it comes to the amount of stigma,  ignorance and romanticization of mental illness that is so common when talking about this sensitive issue. With the recent rise of mental illness in young teens, we need to work together to battle the ignorance surrounding mental health. 

Two of the most common illnesses are depression and anxiety, but unfortunately, this also makes them the most highly romanticized among younger teens. Depression and anxiety, even if common, are two incredibly difficult illnesses to live with and can be crippling. The DSM-V – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – explains depression with a variety of symptoms from difficulty sleeping, affected diet, lack of motivation, and thoughts of suicide and explains anxiety as difficulty sleeping, restlessness and edginess, irritability, impaired concentration and uncontrollable worry. Depression makes it hard to get out of bed, do work, take care of yourself, and even getting dressed is an absolute chore. Even trying to do the things you love is a battle. Anxiety is a constant uphill battle and makes normal things that a neurotypical person deals with with ease near impossible. It’s constant fear and worry over everything and nothing — it’s suffocating. Anyone who lives with these illnesses can understand how hard it makes life and would much rather live without it. Unfortunately, shows like “13 Reasons Why” and even the character Raj in the popular sitcom “Big Bang Theory” can portray mental illness as anything from tragically beautiful to a fun quirk when it is absolutely not. So many impressionable teens watch series like this and think it’s cool to be dysfunctional, and the amount of teens that talk about depression and anxiety like it’s cool without having lived it is unreal and not okay. We need to stop shows and media like this and help teens who might not understand the damage of their actions and give them a better picture of the actual illness and how horrible it is to live with. You wouldn’t want a physical illness, so why depression and anxiety?

Stigma around sociopaths has been around since as long as the mental illness was exposed to the media. The actual term for the disorder is antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and it is characterized by aggression, impulsivity, lack of care for oneself, their property, and those around them, lack of restraint, and believing they are above the law. There is a common belief that sociopaths lack empathy, and though this may be true for some, there seems to be a spectrum and a lot of inconsistent information on the brain of a sociopath. Are they manipulative, angry and deceitful? Yes. Do they completely lack empathy? Not all psychologists think so. In fact, some believe there’s almost an empathy “switch” in the brain of someone with ASPD that says they can turn it on and off at will. But besides all that, are sociopaths inherently violent like the media likes to lead us to believe? Absolutely not. There seems to be this idea that if someone is a sociopath, they are incredibly violent and it’s inevitable that they’ll one day commit a crime. Though this may be true for a very select few (not all), there are many neurotypical people who also commit violent acts too. It’s unfair to assume all sociopaths will commit atrocities. Many seem to mix sociopathy with psychopathy, which is very different. Key differences in the two are psychopaths are born while sociopaths are made – usually though some kind of trauma or environmental issues from a young age. Psychopaths are also objectively more capable of being dangerous as they don’t act on impulse as much as a sociopath does. They are calculated in their actions. Psychopaths lack empathy and the understanding of right and wrong, while sociopaths just disregard it. There are many horror movies and stories and even the saying “psycho” that depict both sociopaths and psychopaths as very violent, and with so many people confusing the two, many believe that sociopaths are inherently violent. This does so much more damage than it does good. People with ASPD have a disorder that they cannot control, and assuming they’re a violent person because of it both makes a person look ignorant and adds to the constant stigma surrounding the disorder. 

Misconception and misinformation about mental health is one of the biggest issues I think we face as a whole and two of the most misunderstood disorders are schizophrenia and DID. Unlike the other two, a lack of media coverage is what really causes the misunderstanding. Though you have definitely heard of these disorders, it’s very common for people to confuse the two. DID stands for “dissociative identity disorder” and was formerly known as “multiple personality disorder.” The most common misconception about this disorder is that it is the same thing as schizophrenia. Many believe that schizophrenia is having multiple personalities (which are known as alters). Schizophrenia and DID are in fact very different. Schizophrenia is characterized by auditory and visual hallucinations, along with extreme paranoia, and delusions. Schizophrenia can almost never manifest itself in younger people and the youngest it develops at is 15. Quite unlike schizophrenia, DID can only manifest itself when the person is young and is born out of extreme trauma in children — usually sexual assault. It’s the brain’s coping mechanism as the other alter your brain creates takes all the memory of the trauma and blocks it off. It’s basically like saying “this terrible thing didn’t happen to me, it happened to my alter and I have no memory of it.”  People with DID and schizophrenia also aren’t as dangerous as many think. In fact, most of them live completely normal lives. There’s also a myth going around that these two disorders are incredibly rare and it’s almost impossible to meet someone with it, but that’s not the case. Though yes, DID is more rare than schizophrenia it’s not wildly unrealistic to meet someone with it. Misunderstanding is very common with these two disorders, but with more objective media coverage, it won’t be hard to give the common person a better understanding of the illness. 

Despite years of built stigma and misinformation in media, with a more objective media and an open minded audience, we can begin to undo the damage done and raise awareness for mental health. Mental illness, even if a very complicated and sensitive issue, is something that we should begin to talk about more and give professionals a bigger platform to spread objective facts and fight misinformation. Mental health is far too often portrayed wrongly in TV shows, movies, and even on social media where people make it look like a cool quirk. No one would want misinformation spread on physical illness and disease — which can be fatal, just like mental illness — so why is it okay when it comes to psychological disorders? It’s unacceptable the way mental illness has been treated, and even if recently it has been taken more seriously, there’s still so much we need to work on. With enough effort, we can start making bigger strides towards a more understanding and accepting future in the field of psychology.