They're violent, unpredictable, unsalvageable. According to the popular media, living with a mental illness is an inescapably bleak existence with absolutely little hope for redemption. And the more extreme the behavior of the patient, the better (the ratings, at least).
“People aren’t interested in watching someone with a minor illness go to a self-help group. Just look at ER–they only show the most extreme cases as well,” Robert Berger, Ph.D, told Psychology Today.
These programs, including TV shows like Wonderland and Monk and movies such as Heathers and Good Will Hunting, proliferate a woefully inadequate, simplified portrayal of the mentally ill, leading to stigmas that are ingrained into society from as early as childhood.
Among this programming, most often the mentally ill are shown to be unpredictably violent, with a proclivity to "going berserk" and erupting in a slurry of unsavory, even criminal behavior. In reality, the vast majority of the mentally ill have no violent tendencies, and rather are more often the victims of abuse than its perpetrators.
Another problematic portrayal depicts them as ensnared in a vortex of hopelessness - no amount of treatment is able to mitigate their psychological problems. This is a dangerous sentiment to spread, as it creates the absolutely untrue belief that the mentally ill can never hope to get better, and that they are lost causes unworthy of human dignity. The opposite is true; in fact, "even people with more severe disorders, such as schizophrenia can be treated effectively and lead integrated lives in the community if we allow them to," said Bill Lichtensetin, who suffered from bipolar disorder and created a documentary that showcased profiles of others who had the mental illness, such as a Yale graduate and a Fortune 500 CEO.
Yet these stereotypes extend past the mentally ill - they also encompass their caretakers. According to the article, there are few distinctions among different medical health professionals in popular media - therapists, psychologists, and psychotherapists all are allotted a vague, unspecified, and inaccurate role. In fact, they are characterized into three different types of medical professionals: Dr. Evil (think Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest), Dr. Dippy, who is more psychotic than his patients, and Dr. Wonderful, an unrealistically wonderful doctor a la Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting.
“ [Many programs] reveal a lazy, uninquisitive mind that doesn’t go below the surface to find where the real story is,” said Lichtenstein, who expressed disdain for the "limited palette" afforded to the mentally ill.
I'm very concerned about programs' lazy, dangerously misguided reliance on mentally ill characters. Too many shows make a mockery of their plight. They're downright exploitative, and deserve nothing but reproach.
What's worse, they proliferate all these false myths that instill hysteria in the public. Rather than promote an understand and seek solutions for the mentally ill, they are relegated to a comedic role. This is an inherently problematic depiction of the mentally ill that too many people are exposed to.
Media’s Damaging Depictions of Mental Illness. (n.d.). Retrieved February 5, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/medias-damaging-depictions-of-mental-illness/0002220?all=1