BY RACHEL E. WRIGHT
Deranged, disturbed, violent. How often are these used to describe a shooter in the news? Weak, attention-seeking, beautiful. Do these words really describe that girl standing in front of a mirror, bones protruding, hating herself?
Mental illness is a taboo subject that is dangerously misinterpreted in the media, which can lead to a stigmatization against those who suffer from it.
It’s a go-to in any news station after every shooting incident that happens in America. The shooter committed the Aurora movie theater shooting, or the Charleston church shooting, because of a documented diagnosis.
“It’s sad that [the media] does this. Just because they have an illness doesn’t mean they should blame the event on it,” Tessa K.*, 21, said. “They should go a little deeper than just an illness.”
Tessa has suffered from anxiety and depression since her early teens and has experienced the country’s mental healthcare system and institutions first-hand.
“It’s frustrating to see huge headlines on CNN about a shooter being mentally ill. It paints us in a bad light. We should change the focus of the discussion and talk about awareness instead of breaking people down,” Tessa K. said.
The stigma that follows mental illness around like a shadow is nourished on this advertised misconception and in turn, the media spoon-feeds this to the public.
“When the only time you see mental illness as violent, it makes you feel worse about yourself, because it makes you feel like you are just as evil as those mass shooters,” said Jess A.*, 20, who has dealt with depression for many years. “It’s insulting to those that do have it … Having a mental illness does not change your morals.”
Both Tessa K. and Jess A. agree that people need to talk about this issue more.
“You can’t go out admitting you are suicidal. Everyone will think you need to be locked away. Consequently, if that’s how society treats us, it influences those of us who are suffering to not seek help, because we feel like they don’t deserve or can’t be helped,” Jess A. said.
The news isn’t the only platform feeding the stigma. Many popular television shows, a lot of them geared toward young people, are also to blame.
While a handful of shows do accurately portray all kinds of mental illness, some like Pretty Little Liars, Full House and Lizzie McGuire (which have all touched on the topic of eating disorders) tend to give an inaccurate representation of the illness.
Though these episodes may bring awareness to the disorder, it’s all tied up at the end with the assumption that one can just get over it.
“The episode of Full House that features DJ acting on eating disordered behaviors is prominent in my mind. I remember thinking a lot about it and asking why anyone would want to do that. Now that I relate to it, it stands out more than it did before,” Lauren Elicker, 19, said of watching reruns of the older show.
Elicker has been treated at the Penn State Eating Disorders Clinic after struggling with anorexia for a few years. Now in the process of recovery, she spends her time educating people on eating disorders on her blog.
“I think shows and movies should take more care when representing the reality of life with any mental illness. Growing children are so prone to imitating what they see that they may not understand the full idea of what a mental illness is or the severity of it,” Elicker said. “A child may see that episode of Full House and think they have to look good in a bathing suit, too, and may begin to engage in eating disordered acts because they saw it on one of their favorite shows. They may not understand what this is actually doing to them. These honestly have had an effect on me now that I think about it.”
Most people with any kind of mental illness have had an instance where they have been stigmatized against.
Sometimes it’s within in the family. “Because of [my parents] upbringing, they thought the only way I’d get rid of my craziness was religion. They made me attend retreats and study the Bible, but never asked me what was wrong. They thought it was all in my head, as many people do,” Jess A. recalls.
Sometimes it’s between friends. “I remember a friend asking about what I had gone through and when I told them about how I had been in the hospital for anorexia they replied with ‘So you just didn’t eat?’ It made me realize how stereotyped I am in this world,” Elicker said.
And sometimes it’s from adults. “I remember coming back from the hospitals and the teachers were the ones being weird about it. They kept throwing around, ‘You could do this’ and ‘You could do that.’ I couldn’t just tell them that I didn’t choose this,” Tessa K. said.
People need to talk about mental illness in a fair and educational way for the wellbeing of those who suffer from one.
“There just needs to be more facts and awareness and less stereotypes and stigmas,” Elicker said. “Our society is slowly improving on the awareness of mental illnesses. I am proud that more people are speaking up and sharing their stories to open people’s eyes to the reality and the seriousness of them.”
*Names have been changed or altered at the request of person for privacy reasons.
Rachel E. Wright is a junior at Bloomsburg University studying journalism.