Mental Illness in Media

So, when I’m not at work or off doing other things, I tend to watch a lot of Netflix (mostly because I still haven’t bothered to get basic cable hooked up). So, because of this, I see a lot of things – and one of those that seems to be most personally affecting, for me, is how mental illnesses are seen in the media, both TV and movies.

I remember watching House, when he voluntarily (though not by much) admits himself into a mental hospital to receive treatment for Vicodin addiction. I didn’t really think much of it at the time, but now that I do, I really wonder about its depiction. I’ve been in three acute care facilities – two of them relatively involuntarily, as it was either admit voluntarily and have a good chance of getting out soon or be admitted involuntarily and stay longer – and none of them really reflected the view you get in House. Now, I get that many of the patients on the show were exaggerated for dramatic effect, but things were very different in reality.

As another example, take Tony Shalhoub’s titular character on the show Monk. He’s a detective with pretty severe OCD, and is shown as being in treatment, but even over the course of years, he never seems to really improve (as noted in this article on PsychCentral). Now, that’s entirely possible – mental illness treatment can be very hit-or-miss – but it gives the impression that, regardless of treatment, mental illness never gets better. Now, as I’ve noted a number of times, mental illness can’t be cured – the medical profession isn’t, and may never be, there yet – but treatment can help significantly. Look at me – in January of last year, I was trying to kill myself, and now I live on my own, I have a job, and I’ve moved to Texas. And I like my life.

On the more positive side, there is the show Homeland, where one of the main characters has bipolar disorder. Now, I haven’t seen the show myself, so I apologize for being uninformed there, but a friend of mine – one who has bipolar disorder – says that the treatment of bipolar disorder is relatively accurate. There’s even at least one doctor who agrees – Dr. Vasilis Pozios tells Time Magazine that “I think (‘Homeland’) does a lot of things that are not only accurate but are commendable. In terms of accuracy, it shows someone with bipolar disorder who has episodes…Instead of being someone who is (either) happy or sad, which is the lay person’s possible understanding of bipolar disorder, this shows the actual major depressive episodes, the manic episodes and also the psychosis that can happen with bipolar disorder.”

Mental illness needs better representation in the media; when there are mass shootings and people immediately pounce on a description of mental illness as a reason, it just stigmatizes those of us who have mental illnesses, and it frightens people who may have mental problems into not looking for treatment. Going without treatment can be catastrophic, even for people with relatively mild diagnoses, and people shouldn’t be being punished for something they literally can’t help having. So I wish the media would try to represent mental illness in a more responsible way.


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