Stigma, Movies and Mental Health; all forms and shapes

Most of what the public learns about Mental Health comes from the popular print and electronic media coverage of Mental Health. Television, radio, and newspapers play an essential role in the public perception of mental illness and If done responsibly, they may help combat the stigma experienced by people with mental illness.

Stigma

Some of the most stigmatizing illnesses in past have included infectious diseases such as leprosy and tuberculosis in past centuries and HIV/AIDs in modern times. It is easy to forget that stigma is not limited to mental illnesses.

Stigma is also not just “present” or “absent.” It comes in all forms and shapes. One may not have negative attitudes towards mental illness but support health policies that discriminate against a person with a mental illness. Alternatively, one may support legislation that improves access for people who have a mental illness to health care but, at the same time would not support a budget allocation to increase the amount of funding for treatments of mental illnesses. We need to be aware of these complexities and not just jump to conclusions as Stigma does not appear-night. There are sociocognitive processes shaping our perceptions.

Cues: General public seems to infer mental illness from four cues that are received by general portrayal of mental illness in movies, day to day conversations, sensationalized news reporting and popular internet memes. Such as: Psychiatric symptoms: Inappropriate effect and bizarre behavior — are manifest indicators of psychiatric illness that produce stigmatizing reactions. Social-skills deficits: Poor social skills that result from some mental illnesses may lead to stigmatizing responses from others. Physical appearance: Poor personal appearance may lead to stigmatizing attitudes. Labels: People distinguish and label human differences. This may be due to misinformation/differences in understanding.

Stereotypes: Stereotypes are exceptionally efficient means of categorizing information about social groups. They are quick because it helps generate impressions and expectations of someone who belongs to a stereotyped group. They are social because they represent collectively agreed on notions about groups of persons. Commonly held stereotypes about people with mental illness are that they are Violent (people with mental illness are dangerous), Incompetent (they are incapable of independent living or real work), and are to be Blamed (because of weak character, they are responsible for the onset and continuation of their disorders).

People who carry Prejudices endorse negative stereotypes and generate adverse emotional reactions as a result. In contrast to stereotypes, which are beliefs, prejudicial attitudes involve an evaluative (generally harmful) component. Prejudice, a thinking process (cognitive) and emotional response, leads to discrimination, the behavioral reaction. Discriminatory behavior manifests itself as an adverse action against the a group or person that may appear as avoidance. For example, employers avoid workers with mental illness by not hiring them.

When somebody is watching a movie, barriers between them and the content of the movie become invisible. It is because the people absorb the images into their conscious mind. The best movies make their viewers experience some kind of dissociation from the reality, to a place where usual existence of time gets suspended as for many of us sometimes reality sucks.

Movies and Mental Illness

Movies play a significant role in terms of influencing the perception of audience regarding mental illness as well as mental health professionals (Figure 1). Movies incorporate mental illness for[i] its cinematic value to the movie plot, add humor and/or for the mysterious dynamic attributes for the characters.

Stigma at a societal level can impact with specific manifestations in three ways:

Self-stigma: It refers to people with mental illness who internalize negative stereotypes, leading to shame, social withdrawal, and demoralization. Individuals with mental illness may feel they are not worthy or able to pursue their life goals (‘why try’). Public- stigma: It occurs when members of the general public endorse negative stereotypes and discriminate against people with mental illness. Social isolation and impaired social networks, unemployment, education, and housing opportunities. Stigma and discrimination are typically experienced as social defeat, which in turn is associated with suicide[ii]. Structural Discrimination: Societal regulations can systematically disadvantage people with mental illness. Relatively inadequate funding of mental health services as compared with physical health services, poorer quality of care, and reduced access to mental health services.

Although there are discussions around Mental Health and Mental Illnesses in Talk shows and intellectual discussion forum, however it does little to counter this distorted representation of Mental Illness in Movies and TV shows.

[i] Beachum L. The psychopathology of cinema: how mental illness and psychotherapy are portrayed in film.

[ii] Rüsch N, Zlati A, Black G, Thornicroft G. Does the stigma of mental illness contribute to suicidality?.

This Article has been adapted by Media, Mental Health and Misconceptions by Dr. Aisha Sanober Chachar that was originally published at Newsletter SOUL, Dow University of Health Sciences. Volume-2, Jan — Mar, 2020. Pg 32–33.

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