The way in which the media represents people’s experiences of mental illness has been criticised as inaccurate and harmful. People with mental health conditions are often portrayed in horror, police procedurals, and thrillers as dangerous- the perpetrators of violent crime. Conversely, media can downplay mental health conditions, using them as a punchline with little acknowledgment of how significant an impact they can have. Some mental health conditions and harmful coping mechanisms are even romanticised and framed as desirable by the media. This representation has consequences on how mental illnesses are viewed by the general public and may contribute to stigmatisation.

Creating an association between mental illnesses and violence can perpetuate the view that people with mental health conditions are a threat to others. For example, mental health campaigners and psychologists critiqued the film Split (2016) for the sensualisation of dissociative identity disorder and for depicting it as a cause of criminal behaviour. This representation can make conversations around these conditions much harder and create a barrier for people who want to reach out for support because they fear being misunderstood. Additionally, internalising these attitudes could cause people to self-stigmatise and develop a more negative view of themselves, which could result in the worsening of symptoms or unhelpful behaviours, such as social isolation or the avoidance of treatment. Therefore, representation can negatively impact the understanding of mental illnesses both by people affected and the general public.

Additionally, using mental illnesses as the butt of a joke is harmful as it can cause the public to misunderstand these conditions. An example is the depiction of OCD in the TV series Monk (2002 – 2009). It was criticised for making light of the condition by portraying OCD as a preoccupation with symmetry and order but failing to show the anxiety that underlies these compulsions. Instead, these behaviours were depicted as comedic. These depictions of mental health conditions trivialise the experiences of living with a mental illness and ridicule people for showing symptoms. As a consequence, people may not understand the need to support those with mental illnesses and assume that they should be able to recover without professional help. This is one way in which downplaying mental health conditions can be problematic.

Glamorising mental illnesses can be harmful as it also downplays the severity of living with these conditions and may promote harmful behaviours. Skins (2007 -2013) featured multiple storylines about mental health throughout its run, but some were criticised for romanticising those experiences. One example is the portrayal of Cassie, who was fascinating and quirky, with her anorexia nervosa becoming an endearing trait. This kind of representation has been accused of making mental health conditions seem desirable and, as a result, causing people to want to be like those characters and putting off seeking help. In the case of skins, Cassie even became a source of ‘pro-anorexia’ motivation and served as inspiration for some people. This representation therefore, misrepresents mental illness as aspirational.

Another way in which mental health conditions are misrepresented is by relying on stereotypes. For example, depictions of OCD show people who are very clean, organised, and germaphobic. However, this does not represent the range of obsessions and compulsions related to OCD. Therefore, people who rely on the media for their understanding of mental health conditions have a stereotyped view of some mental illnesses with a number of consequences. Firstly, people may not recognise the signs of mental illnesses in themselves so they delay getting help because they don’t conform to the stereotype. Additionally, limited representation can cause people with less well-known symptoms to feel unseen. They may struggle to communicate their experiences with others as there’s a risk people will invalidate their experiences because they don’t believe them to be related to a mental illness.

Minority groups that are not featured frequently in the media could be at particular risk of feeling that their experiences with mental illnesses are not validated. For example, much of the media’s mental health representation focuses on white characters, leaving people of colour feeling as though they cannot relate. This may be one reason why these minorities are less likely to access NHS talking therapies, as they may be less likely to seek help if they feel they will not be understood or supported. Healthcare professionals may also be less likely to offer that help in the first place because conversations around mental health are so focused on white patients.

Mental health conversations are also impacted by representation that minimises the impact of mental illnesses as it contributes to the misuse of mental health terms. The use of stigmatising language is frequent and includes using “they’re so bipolar” as an insult for someone who rapidly changes moods. Media representation that implies these health terms describe personality traits and behaviours instead of mental health conditions may worsen the problem. This misunderstanding can complicate conversations about mental health and make it harder for people’s experiences to be taken seriously. For example, bipolar disorder involves extreme changes in mood with a significant impact on a person’s daily activities that causes a lot of distress. Manic episodes can make a person feel untouchable and more likely to take risks, whilst depressive episodes can be associated with suicidal ideation and self-harm. It goes beyond typical mood swings, but many people may not have this understanding of bipolar disorder due to how it is misrepresented and misused as an insult.

In summary, the media needs more accurate, diverse representations of mental health conditions. Improved depictions of mental illnesses that go beyond stereotypes could be invaluable in raising awareness and making it easier for people to notice when they, or those around them, are showing symptoms of a mental illness. Better representation could also reduce the usage of stigmatising language, ensuring that mental health terms are used accurately and not as an insult or a joke. Finally, people with less common symptoms or with more typically demonised conditions would feel more comfortable being open about their experiences without being shamed or invalidated. Better coverage of mental health storylines has previously been linked to improved understanding of those conditions. Therefore, critiquing the media’s depiction of mental illnesses can hopefully lead to improved representation and open up a productive conversation around mental health.