THE PRICE OF POOR REPRESENTATION
OF MENTAL ILLNESS IN THE MEDIA
This project is a requirement of the GOA Abnormal Psychology Course. Using the process of design thinking, a challenge in the world of mental health was identified, interviews and research were undertaken, and a solution prototype was developed. Below you will find information about the identified area of concern and my proposed solution. Please feel free to provide feedback on this prototype, using questions such as “How might we…”, “What if….?”, “I wonder….”, “I like…”, and “I wish.” Keep the comments positive, please. For more information on the process of Design Thinking, click here.
Going into my Abnormal Psychology class, I didn’t have much prior knowledge about the subject, but what I did know, I had learned from TV shows or movies I had watched. When I realized this about halfway through the semester, I immediately started to think:
Is this always the case? Do we usually learn about unfamiliar topics from the media (i.e. news, TV shows, newspapers)?
When I found that this was often true, other questions arose:
What if the media misrepresents the topic? As a result, is the public’s view of this topic skewed?
The answer is yes.
Because of inaccurate depictions of mental illness in the media, the public’s perception of those battling with these illnesses has been distorted. This is when the final questions I wanted to answer for the Catalyst Conference formed:
How might I educate students at my school about mental illness through the media? How can I guarantee they see accurate portrayals of different mental disorders to ensure that they will be able to empathize with those who suffer from them in the future?
The media is selling stigma, and we’re buying it.
In a world where technology has become the key to knowledge, we must make sure that this readily available information is credible, especially for our youth. When first identifying my main topic for this project, I asked my friends this question:
Do you think that teens often form their perceptions of topics they have never learned about in school based on how they have seen it portrayed in a TV show or movie?
Their responses were synonymous, yes. When I talked to Sarah Collier, a licensed professional counselor in my area, she gave me more insight into the media’s role in teen’s lives.
I do credit some social media, and even TV and movies, where they start to make [mental illness] look a little more acceptable.
– Sarah Collier, LPC
She also agreed that in-school programs are helping reduce the social stigma surrounding mental illness that still exists in many high schools today. However, there is still more work to be done. This is where my plans for my school come into play.
I plan to focus on the misrepresentation of mental illness in the media and how it contributes to the stigma surrounding the subject. I know I can start conversations about this in my school by partnering with Active Minds, a club at my school that works to destigmatize mental illness in the school environment. If I am able to do this, I will push to have monthly club meetings to watch shows or movies that portray mental illness accurately and have discussions to encourage conversation about the different topics in our school. To promote the club, I will put up posters throughout the school. Below are different designs I have made:
SAMPLE POSTER 1
SAMPLE POSTER 2
SAMPLE POSTER 3
MENTAL WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS: AN INSIDE LOOK
Below are examples of some of the different subjects we would cover in various club meetings. Of course, I’m not asking you to watch all of these videos in one sitting as that would take a significant amount of time. However, if you would like a good gauge of what we would do in a single meeting, I suggest watching the episode on Asperger’s Syndrome, “Causing a Commotion;” it is one of the shorter discussion topics.
Asperger’s Syndrome: Degrassi Season 8, Episode 11
“Causing a Commotion”
Connor’s abnormal behavior during school sparks conversation about Asperger’s Syndrome and how to treat those with the disorder. His friends find out why Connor acts the way he does and how to make him feel more accepted at Degrassi.
- What is the definition of “normal” that society (including Principal Shep) knows and why does Connor not fit this definition?
- What constitutes “normal?”
- What symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome did Connor display?
- What were some of the mistakes that Connor’s friends made in addressing his different behavior?
- Although Connor has some social skills problems, what are some of Connor’s strengths?
- How can we make students on the autism spectrum feel more welcomed in the school environment where they have to deal with both social and emotional encounters?
- Even though Connor seemed okay with his friends knowing about his disorder, how do you feel other students with the disorder might react to their friends knowing?
- Would they be scared that they would be treated differently?
- Should they be treated differently?
- Do you think Connor’s portrayal of Asperger’s Syndrome is accurate in comparison to what happens in the “real world?”
Depression/Suicide: Degrassi Season 12, Episodes 31 & 32
“Bitter Sweet Symphony”
In these episodes, Cam, a star hockey player and all-around nice guy at Degrassi, commits suicide after his growing depression overtakes him. We see the aftermath of his suicide through the grief and guilt felt by his closest friends and the unusual response of his girlfriend.
- Why do you think the writers of Degrassi let Cam, a popular and seemingly happy athlete, commit suicide? What is the significance of his death?
- What do you think were some of the warning signs Cam displayed about his depression and suicidal thoughts?
- Do you think his friends missed some of these warning signs?
- If so, how could they have helped?
- Do you think Maya’s reaction to her boyfriend’s suicide was strange? Or was it an accurate representation of someone who has lost a loved one?
- Do you think if someone like Fiona had helped Cam (like she did for Dallas when he was contemplating jumping off the school’s roof), his suicide could have been prevented?
- Do you feel that it is important for those who were close to Cam to seek counsel?
- Why did Cam kill himself? Do you think Dallas, Alli, Zig, and Maya (or anyone else who feels guilty about his death) played a role in his suicide?
- Do you think Cam’s portrayal of suicide is accurate in comparison to what happens in the “real world?”
Eating Disorders: Degrassi Season 5, Episodes 15 & 16
“Our Lips Are Sealed”
These episodes show the evolution of Emma’s eating disorder and its effect on both her home and school life. In addition, her family and friends try to intervene before her illness worsens, but, unfortunately, we see that she ends up in the hospital.
- Why do you think Emma is so adamant about losing weight? Is it because she feels this is the only thing in her life she can control with all the stress in her life including her parents’ current separation?
- In part 1, Emma says that the models she cut out from various magazines were to serve as “inspiration” for the next time she wanted to lose weight. What does this say about the media’s portrayal of the “perfect body?”
- Is a “perfect body” even attainable?
- What do you feel is the root of Emma’s body image problems?
- What did Peter say the symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa were?
- How do you think the intervention could’ve gone better? What else could they have said in an attempt to help Emma? Or was Emma too closed-minded at this point for any further aid from her family and friends to work?
- How would you help a friend who was dealing with an eating disorder?
- Do you think Emma’s portrayal of Anorexia Nervosa is accurate in comparison to what happens in the “real world?”
I will talk to the advisor of Active Minds at my school to see if my proposal is possible. If she approves the idea, it will be put into action at the beginning of our next school year. My ultimate goal of Mental Wellness Wednesdays is for my peers to understand that going to the doctor for a physical checkup is no different than going to a therapist for a mental check-in. I hope that through the lens of the media, a means of communication this generation has become all too familiar with, we can do this.
In our class, we’ve learned to use Design Thinking to provide feedback. In light of that, please comment using the prompts “What if…?”, “How might we…?”, or “I wonder…?” to tell me how I can improve this project. Thank you so much for looking at my page!