The Impacts of Dramatizing Mental Illness

Originally published on the Amherst Wire


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Illustration by Jon Decker/ Amherst Wire

A man with schizophrenia stands atop a building with a stranger’s baby in his arms in a whirlwind of delusions.

A depressed student who has been bullied their whole life brings a gun to school and commits suicide by police.

A beautiful young woman stares at her skin and bones in the mirror on her conquest to bodily perfection, pressured by her parents.

Crime show dramas and flashy TV news headlines perpetuate stereotypes and stigmas around mental illness. According to University of Massachusetts Amherst professor of psychological and brain sciences Linda Isbell, this is more prevalent now than in the past.

“The media has done us no favors whatsoever in the way they have covered these individuals in the news, the way they depict them in movies and on TV shows, all of that has served to reinforce false stereotypes that individuals with mental illness are a danger or threat to other people,” said Isbell.

Isbell pointed to a misperception that individuals with mental health problems pose a threat to the community. She emphasized this view is false.

“Individuals with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of any kind of violence than they are to be the perpetrators of it,” Isbell said. For example, the way people with mental illness are portrayed by film and media as violent criminals instead of survivors of personal trauma.

“Mental illness is one of those invisible disorders. People who aren’t mentally ill don’t get it because they don’t experience it.”

Mikayla Greaves, a sophomore Japanese major at UMass, has major depressive disorder. Her symptoms surfaced before she hit puberty and has had no luck treating her symptoms with medication.

Greaves says she recognizes a stigma surrounding her mental illness, especially when opening up to her parents or older adults. It is hard for her to talk about it, she says, because people do not believe she is ill.

“They’ll ask me, ‘Why can’t you just get out of bed today?’ Or they will tell me to just ‘Get over it,’” Greaves said.

“Oh great, I’m cured,” she said with a laugh.

Robert Hammond, a junior plant and soil science major, has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder for the better part of a decade. He says he “feels awful all the time.”

“Mental illness is one of those invisible disorders. People who aren’t mentally ill don’t get it because they don’t experience it,” Hammond said. “It is easy for them to say it doesn’t exist.”

“People are more willing to accept that my hands are messed up than my head,” said Hammond, pointing out the visibility difference between physical and mental ailments.

He said that at age 11 or 12 he realized the anxiety and negative thoughts he experienced were not how his peers felt every day. He takes Wellbutrin, a drug used mainly for depression and seasonal affective disorder, to cope with his daily struggles.

After dealing with depression for the greater part of his life, Hammond says he is aware of the stigma surrounding mental health and depression, particularly in regard to men’s health.

“Men are socialized to not contextualize their emotions. There’s an idea that talking about how you feel is weak,” Hammond said. “Teen boys don’t have the wisdom that comes with age to understand that toxic masculinity isn’t ok.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and represent 77.9 percent of all suicides.

Isbell says that people often have trouble recognizing mental illness as a tangible disease, unlike problems that can be diagnosed with a blood test, X-ray, or brain scan.

“The criteria for determining if someone has a mental illness are kind of subjective — there are no blood tests,” Isbell said.

Greaves and Hammond agreed they found it difficult to get help as they felt their mental illnesses were not taken seriously by society.

Isbell said, however, that society is more accepting of mental illness as a disease instead of just a behavior.

“People are more willing to believe that mental illnesses are brain-based diseases than they did in the old days,” Isbell said. “They tended to think they were due to bad parenting, lack of willpower, or many other things that were focused on the individual and not about the brain.”

On the other side, this way of thinking about mental illness as biological rather than behavioral creates its own stigma. Isbell explained that blaming biology leads people to see those with mental illnesses as “genetically flawed” and unable to overcome the illness.

“It creates more sympathy but it also creates more social distance,” said Isbell.

Greaves and Hammond explained that being worn down by depression and the way society works around it can make it hard to recognize yourself in the mirror.

“I’ve been depressed for so long that I don’t really remember who I was before the depression,” Greaves said.

“We are told you need to reclaim yourself, who you were before the depression. For a lot of young people there is nothing to reclaim and you need to rebuild who you are after the depression,” Hammond said.

Isbell said she has noticed more students on campus with mental illness than in the past. She explained that she believes the college environment poses a threat to students’ mental well-being. Between all-nighters, alcohol, substance abuse, poor nutrition and an overloaded schedule, students find themselves overwhelmed with stress.

“You need some downtime too,” Isbell said.

While a college environment may negatively affect students’ mental health, Isbell also attributes the increase a higher rate of diagnoses to having more mental health resources on campus than before.

“People are more likely to be diagnosed than they were in the old days and medications, treatments and non-medication treatments are better than they used to be,” Isbell said. “Now people who may not have been able to go away to college because of their mental health limitations … come to campus with mental health issues that are reasonably well-controlled.”

Isbell pointed to the number of people and groups that offer resources and support for mental health advocacy.

“If you can confide in some trusted person there are a lot of people on campus who can relate to mental health challenges,” said Isbell.

Junior Alexa Moon is an advocate for mental health with Active Minds who aims to create a space to talk about mental illness. Active Minds is a national organization dedicated to mental health advocacy.

“Our goal is to change the conversation about mental health,” said Moon, “We want people to know it is an okay thing to talk about.”

After the dialogue around mental health begins, it is important to talk about the route to recovery.

“Historically there is a sense that mental illness has been a sign of weakness,” Isbell said. “The sign of strength is that you are going to try to do something about it and reach out because there are a lot of great treatments out there.”

Isbell is optimistic about the journey to recovery, and wishes to make it known to the outside world that healing is possible.

“People can recover,” Isbell said. “If there is one message that needs to get out there it is that recovery is very real, even for people with very serious problems.”

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