Media as an Agent of Social Change

Stigma is still perhaps the greatest barrier to providing quality mental health services to individuals. It is almost impossible to deny the impact of the media in shaping the way we view our lives and key social issues in American society. I believe media can go a long way in increasing or decreasing the stigma surrounding key social issues. With the Supreme Court hearing cases this summer on California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act an interesting phenomenon occurred. News and media outlets began using media as a sort of thermometer for the nations changing stance on another highly stigmatized issue the acceptance of same sex marriage.

NPR used the Career of Ellen DeGeneres as a gauge of social acceptance from her initial stand-up success “in the closet” in the 1980′s, then her “coming out of the closet” on her popular sitcom in the mid1990′s, and finally her present success as a married gay host of an incredibly popular television talk show starting in 2003. From there, the example of individuals who are gay in all sorts of media has been numerous and varied from  the L-Word to Modern Family. I know I’m missing a lot of media examples, but my hope is to show a trend.

I believe that this same trend is occurring for mental health an issue that could affect a huge amount of people because of the stigma surrounding mental illness is similar to the stigma that surrounds homosexuality. If we look at film and television and briefly ignore the huge amount of visual media that portrays “psychopathy,” we see that a richer more realistic view of mental health is emerging starting perhaps with 2001′s A Beautiful Mind. A recent example is last year’s Silver Lining Playbook in which Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence both suffer from mental illnesses. The three television shows that are perhaps best portray mental health as an “ordinary” illness are Showtime’s 2011 Homeland and HBO’s 2012 Girls and FX’ The Bridge. In the wildly popular Homeland, a favorite show of President Barack Obama, the main character Carrie played by Claire Danes suffers from Bipolar disorder. In HBO's Girls it was revealed that the main character Hannah played by Lena Dunham suffers from a mental health disorder (it just finished its second season so no spoilers). The new FX show The Bridge shows a brilliant detective who suffers with Asperger syndrome.

All of these examples have received critical acclaim and commercial success. I site these particular films and TV shows for their positive portrayal of mental illness as brilliant individuals who all suffer with their illness while maintaining extraordinary lives that include jobs and families. I believe if this trend continues the stigma surrounding mental illness could be reduced. However, it is important to take this with a grain of salt. All of these characters are women and research has shown that men face more mental health stigma than women. The mental health treatment in all these shows is often downplayed and almost completely controlled through medication with little mention of therapy.  Often time the behavior of these female characters is often portrayed as deficient balanced out by their male counterparts.

Media images are still often the only examples some people in this country receive of those different from themselves. This can very effectively create both positive and negative stereotypes. If the beliefs are positive like the portrayal of a brilliant CIA operative with bipolar disorder then media can be beneficial. However, if the images are detrimental, they can be internalized possibly leading to discrimination. I for one am hopeful this trend of individuals with mental health issues portrayed in media continues, because the media can be a powerful tool for diminishing the obstacle of stigma in the field. Once we let people different from us into our living room and see that they're not so different, real change can begin.

Written by Will Osei


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