Mental Health in the Media

Media is an essential institution in American society.  From the dissemination of information to alert the public of critical news, it’s a role in culture has been solidly substantiated over time.  Content and ideas spread by the media have a direct relationship with how the public views mental health and at WeCounsel, we have a vested interest in the media portrayal of mental health.  As the largest nationwide network of behavioral healthcare providers, we see first-hand the effects of the media’s power in influencing views on mental health. In recent years, mental health has become more frequently reported, with stigmas turned around and discussions opening up.

Mental Illness ≠ Crazy or Violent

A diagnosis of mental illness does not intrinsically imply that someone is crazy or violent.  Media portrayals to the contrary have circulated for years, making the two terms nearly synonymous.  Between movies like Girl, Interrupted and A Beautiful Mind, to the salacious stories of guilty pleas due to “insanity”, mental illness has historically been represented by the extreme scenarios.

Notably high rates of suicide, mass shootings, and terrorism have propelled mental health heavily into focus.  While mental health issues can lead to violent behavior in a small portion of the population – the fact is that depression, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia or other mental illness don’t turn someone into a murderer.  Otherwise, 1 in 5 people in the U.S. would be psychopathic killers.  In fact, individuals with severe mental illness are responsible for only 3%–5% of violent acts and are actually 10x more likely to be victims of violence than the general population.

Johns Hopkins University examined 400 news samples covering mental illness over a 2-year span and concluded that over ⅓ of news stories about mental health were positively correlated with violence.  This association has historically reinforced the stigma with mental illness, making it the scapegoat for all behavior, neglecting any extenuating circumstances.  However, increased negative coverage increases the likelihood of positive media coverage to combat these effects.

A 2016 study sought to measure the stigmatizing vs. anti-stigmatizing media coverage.  The results of measuring the rise and fall of these two types of media coverage are inconsistent, but they did conclude that overall media coverage of mental health has increased in the past decade.  Increasing coverage leads to an increase in conversation, knowledge, and journalist training – increasing the accuracy of what information is dispersed and promoting more positive mental health images over time.

People with Mental Illness Live a Normal Life

An inherent fear in many people is that a mental health diagnosis will become a detriment to their life beyond their imagination.  This fear has a profound impact on whether people access treatment, as patients are less likely to seek treatment for fear of a diagnosis and the subsequent social judgment.  A mental illness diagnosis is life-altering, regardless of severity, however, life post-diagnosis is extremely unique and dependent on the patient and their illness.

It is common for patients to wonder how much information they need to disclose to their families, friends, and employers.  People live and thrive with mental health illness every day and disclose information at their leisure.  The allowance for this has been encouraged by the media and through various celebrity diagnosis disclosures.  Consider J.K. Rowling, best known for her Harry Potter book series, as well as being a successful author and philanthropist.  Rowling suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression.  She chose to disclose her diagnosis publicly because she felt comfortable after years of consistent management.  It is becoming more commonplace to discuss mental health openly, as seen with celebrities like Lady Gaga and Michael Phelps, to demonstrate the levels of success one can achieve in spite of a diagnosis.

Mental illness diagnosis is not a death sentence, it can actually serve as quite the opposite.  Through the course of treatment and lifestyle changes, symptomatic periods can significantly decline.  Therapy, medication and a quality support system can all assist in managing mental illness effectively.  The catch – these illnesses can’t be managed on their own but, with proper mental health treatment, individuals can live better.  Better yet, many people recover completely and live happy healthy lives.

While still misrepresented and often exaggerated, there are more examples of positive depictions of mental illness.  It is realistically and refreshingly portrayed in television shows such as This Is Us and Black-ish to provide realistic depictions of mental illness.  In neither of these shows is the main characters locked away in asylums or commit self-harm or harm unto others.  Instead, both shows depict main characters struggling with a variety of mental illness and recover and cope upon receiving treatment.


Mental health and mental illness present differently in everyone, with no one particular look or action completely defining every individual.  Shame is a common trend permeating through mental health conversations because of the attached stigmas and is ultimately detrimental to a patient’s treatment and health.  Impacts from these stigmas can be monumental. An estimated 59% of all U.S. adults with a mental illness, whose lives could dramatically improve, receive no treatment and stigma is a contributing factor.

Continuity of care and patient compliance are difficult to maintain in physical medicine, where stigmas are less severe,  nevertheless in behavioral medicine where assumptions and stigmas run wild. Yet, the media conversation has the potential to normalize mental health and the process of seeking help.  Once these topics enter into normal conversation, people can look past that stigma and begin treatment for the long haul. Netflix’s feature 13 Reasons Why has been heavily criticized in its sensationalized misrepresentation of mental illness and suicide.  This may or may not be true, but it is not being discussed as a universal presentation of mental illness and is allowing for stigmas to be challenged to prove that each individual is unique.  With unique presentations, come unique solutions.

Behavioral Health Integration (BHI) is a unique integration of behavioral healthcare into the primary care field and seeks to eliminate stigma while providing an increased value of care.  How does this happen? The physician conducts a thorough history, physical, and psychological evaluation, then prescribes a comprehensive treatment plan addressing physical and mental symptoms.  Integration of behavioral health care into primary health care ensures that each patient is comprehensively evaluated and normalizes the process, acting as a gateway into everyday conversations.

BHI alleviates one of the main paint points of social stigma through discretion.  BHI’s underlying principle of ambiguity in the primary care process, means only the patient and the doctors are aware of a mental health treatment plan.  This is particularly noteworthy in virtual behavioral integration, where the patient can see one, or both, healthcare providers virtually. If virtual care continues, sessions initiate from the privacy of the patient’s home, maintaining treatment and privacy

Media portrayal casts various perceptions of mental health, from positive to negative.  The coverage of mental health in the media has increased in recent years, bringing the conversation more to the forefront.  Regardless of the depiction, having the conversations about mental illness and treatment options helps break down stigmas for more positive results.  The media bears much of the responsibility, but the onus doesn’t just belong to them. Recognizing media-addressed taboos breaks down the barriers for long-lasting change to encourage treatment options, policy, and funding further mental health research.

If you’re currently looking to speak with a mental health professional, click here to access the WeCounsel provider network.  Everything is confidential and what better time to start than now?