Replacing the Media’s Fear of Mental Illness with a Message of Hope
By Guest Blogger, Juliana Holcomb
Juliana Holcomb is a Senior at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA where she studies Psychology and American Sign Language/Deaf Studies. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology to pursue a career as a researcher and clinician. In her free time, she enjoys reading, drinking tea, going on day trips, and spending time with her family and friends.
For the last few weeks, social media has been bombarded by Netflix’s newly released film, Bird Box, which is based off Josh Malerman’s 2014 book of the same name. From reviews to memes, Bird Box seemed to have taken over the Internet for a short stint of time. About a week ago, I watched the film, not knowing its premise, just to see if it lived up to the high expectations. I was shocked that the film captured a graphic suicide within the first fifteen minutes and continued to show numerous more throughout its duration. My first concern was that this content does not conform to recommended guidelines for safe messaging when discussing suicide on a public platform. As if this consistent portrayal was not bad enough, the film had an underlying theme of the demonization of mental illness. Throughout the film, inpatients from a psychiatric hospital escaped, were deemed as evil, and were tasked at making non-mentally ill people evil too. Those with mental illness were to be avoided, feared, and taken down at any cost throughout the film.
The push for social media posts, TV shows, books, films, and other platforms to promote safe messaging, especially in regards to mental illness and suicide, is an ongoing movement. More and more of these platforms are beginning to take this topic seriously as suicide is the second highest cause of death for teenagers and young adults (Population Reference Bureau, 2016). However, a theme that continues to appear is the demonization and fear of those with mental illness. This is not only seen through the aforementioned platforms but also in everyday conversation. For example, words such as “crazy” and “psycho” are still used in daily speech and appear in many places within popular culture. For instance, Ava Max’s newly released song, “Sweet but Psycho”, includes lyrics such as “Yeah, people say, ‘Run, don’t walk away ‘cause she’s sweet but a psycho.” The consistent, negative verbiage about those with mental illness, especially regarding those who are either inpatients or outpatients at a psychiatric hospital, is deleterious. While the harm of these words and portrayals of mental illness in the media may seem fleeting, this type of perception can leave a lasting imprint on its audience. This notion is seen poignantly in the viral, anti-bullying video entitled, “I Wear Your Words”. This video painfully displays the cutting nature of words and their long-lasting impact on a person. The adverse view of those with mental illness has the potential to reduce interpersonal support for those with mental illness or even reduce one’s willingness to receive mental health treatment due to the lasting impact of its stigma.
So, as consumers of media such as Bird Box but also as parents, siblings, friends, and mental health advocates, what can be done? Here are tips:
- Initiate a positive dialogue about mental health. Sometimes, it can feel like an overwhelming task to reduce the stigma that negative mental illness representations spread. Especially when reaching a larger audience, such as the film Bird Box, how can we even begin to break through this representation of those with mental illness(es)? One way of reducing this stigma is to strike up conversations on a one-on-one basis or in a small group to openly question and challenge media portrayals of mentally ill people as “crazy.” “I Wear Your Words” depicted the power of this on a widespread scale. Discussing mental health openly and honestly is imperative. A starting point for this discussion can be talking about how caring for your mental health, whether that means therapy, medication, inpatient treatment, or another method, is just as critical as caring for your physical health.
- Interject when negative mental health words are used. It is definitely challenging to stand up to someone who is speaking in a derogatory way about those with mental illness. To interject, you do not need to be aggressive or forceful with your words. Saying something like, “You know, mental illness affects a lot more people than you think. Maybe you could say ‘those with a mental illness’ instead of crazy next time” or “When you call someone a ‘psycho’ as a joke, it can be really hurtful to someone who has a mental illness or knows someone with one. Just wanted to let you know for next time!” By opening the dialogue and actively challenging negative terms, you can appropriately and respectfully educate others on the importance of word choice in the mental health conversation.
- Support artists and film-makers that prioritize safe messaging. By listening to music that contributes to a negative representation of mental health and watching TV shows that don’t use safe messaging, we can be inadvertently supporting these messages. It’s a great idea to support artists, authors, film-makers, and more that support mental health awareness!
- Volunteer and get involved. As shown, some media portrayals of mental illness attempt to ignite fear in those that have a mental health diagnosis. To combat this notion, get involved! Volunteering at a mental health and/or suicide prevention organization (like the Jordan Porco Foundation) is a great place to start. There are also suicide prevention lifelines (phone or text) that are always looking to train volunteers for their life-saving work. If you’re a college student, many colleges and universities have a mental health peer education or awareness group on campus that is a great way to get involved.
While films and other forms of media can portray mental illness in a negative light, mental health advocates of all ages and walks of life have the ability to transform these ideas by breaking through the thick wall of stigma surrounding mental health topics and instilling a deep sense of hope among young adults.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit the Jordan Porco Foundation’s resources page.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal, and not those of the Jordan Porco Foundation. The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as mental health advice from the individual author or the Jordan Porco Foundation. You should consult a mental health professional for advice regarding your individual situation.