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Media Portrayal Of Mental Illness In America

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Media Portrayal of Mental Illness in America

The media in American society has a major influential impact on the minds and beliefs of millions of people. Whether through the news, television shows, or film, the media acts as a huge database for knowledge and instruction. It is both an auditory and visual database that can press images and ideas into people's minds. Even if the individual has no prior exposure or knowledge to something, the media can project into people's minds and leave a lasting impression. Though obviously people are aware of what they are listening to or watching, thoughts and assumptions can drift into their minds without even realizing it. These thoughts that drift in are extremely influential. The massive impact it can leave on America's perception leads to generalizations, assumptions, and stigmas. The media influence is not always negative, however. In most cases it has beneficial and positive aspects. Without the media, people would be drastically less informed and conscientious about major issues in the world around us. In some cases, however, the way the media portrays an issue can twist one's perception, leaving an assumption instead of a factual concept. Mental illness is one of the biggest concepts that the media has distorted due to the majority of portrayals the media presents. Mental health is extremely important and plays a key role in every individual's life. Yet it is also has millions of misconceptions. Mental illness is more common that one would like to believe. In reality, one in five Americans will suffer from a mental disorder in any given year. Though that ratio is about equivalent to more than fifty-four million people, mental illness still remains a shameful and stigmatized topic (National Institute of Mental Health, n.d.). The taboo of mental illness has an extensive and exhausting history, dating back to the beginning of American colonization. It has not been an easy road to say the least. Due to the endless efforts and research of certain foundations and individuals, the ideas and functions of mental health have improved significantly. The advancements made in the field are impressive and without them humankind would not be the same. Yet then why do only fewer than eight million people who are in need of help seek treatment? (National Mental Health Association, 2001). The history, stigmatization, and perception of mental illness are some of the many reasons behind that alarming statistic.

The history of mental health and illness is extensive and dates back to the beginning of the colonization of America. The mentally ill were cared for at home by their families until the state recognized that it was a problem that was not going to go away. In response, the state built asylums. These asylums were horrendous; people were chained in basements and treated with cruelty. Though it was the asylums that were to blame for the inhumane treatment of the patients, it was perceived that the mentally ill were untamed crazy beasts that needed to be isolated and dealt with accordingly. In the opinion of the average citizen, the mentally ill only had themselves to blame (Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health, 1999). Unfortunately, that view has haunted society and left a lasting impression on the minds of Americans. In the era of "moral treatment", that view was repetitively attempted to be altered. Asylums became "mental hospitals" in hope of driving away the stigma yet nothing really changed. They still were built for the untreatable chronic patients and due to the extensive stay and seemingly failed treatments of many of the patients, the rest of the society believed that once you went away, you were gone for good. Then the era of "mental hygiene" began late in the nineteenth century. This combined new concepts of public health, scientific medicine, and social awareness. Yet despite these advancements, another change had to be made. The era was called "community mental health" and continued until 1975. In the beginning the main focus was deinstitutionalization in hopes of connecting the mentally ill to the rest of the world. This advocated knowledge, education, and social support in hopes of erasing the stereotypes of mental illness that was installed in society from the beginning. Also, this led to the final reform movement, which began in 1975 and still continues today. This "community support" era views mental illness in terms of social welfare. Some problems include education, employment, housing, and governmental assistance (Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health, as cited in Morrison and Goldman, 1984).

Table 2-10. Historical reform movements in mental health treatment in the United States

Reform movement Era Setting Focus of Reform

Moral Treatment 1800-1850 Asylum Humane, restorative treatment

Mental Hygiene 1890-1920 Mental hospital or clinic Prevention, scientific orientation

Community Mental Health 1955-1970 Community mental health center Deinstitutionalization, social integration

Community Support 1975-present Community support Mental illness as a social welfare problem (e.g., housing, employment)

Sources: Morrissey & Goldman, 1984; Goldman & Morrissey, 1985.

In addition to the historical aspect, confusion about mental health is another reason leading to the perception of the mentally ill. The Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health, (1999), dispels any confusion by making detailed analogies and information. Mental health and mental illness are not opposites; they are like two points on a continuum. The value of mental health is indescribable; it is what makes a person who they really are. Mental health involves mental function resulting in successful productive behavior and is the key to healthy relationships with other people. Mental health is the underlying backbone of growth, self-esteem, emotional well being, and communication. Mental illness refers to diagnosable mental disorders. Impaired functioning and personal distress are the result of the alterations in mood, behavior, and cognitive skills that mental illness creates. People tend to see mental illness as something separate and incomparable to themselves because they do not understand the concepts that mental health pertains to. Those who have no experience with mental illness tend to believe that mental illness is so far from mental health, which can result in stigmas. These misconceptions of the basic structure of one's self lead people to isolate themselves from the problem of mental illness. The media uses these misconceptions and



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