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The Media’s Violent Images of Mental Illness

The media's violent images of mental illness increase stigma against the mentally ill. What is the truth? How can we correct the stigma? Take a look.

In the past few weeks, three people with mental illness appeared in the media’s pictures of violence, which is no surprise given that the media and mental illness have a long history together. Ultimately, the media defines what mental illness looks like in the public’s mind. If one were to gauge by the past few weeks, it would seem that mental illness and violence go hand in hand. But does it?

Here’s the rundown of the past few weeks:

  • On Sept. 16, Aaron Alexis enter a Washington, D.C. Navy shipyard and proceeded to kill 12 people and injury four more.
  • On Oct. 3, Miriam Carey was killed by police after ramming into a gate at the White House and then leading them on a high-speed chase through Washington, D.C.
  • On Oct. 4, John Constantino doused himself with gasoline and then set himself on fire while sitting on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

All of those events have mental illness in the news titles with violent images to accompany them. But people with mental illness are done a disservice by the media’s violent images.

From Victorian Asylums to The Shining

Media portrayal of people with mental illnesses as violent and scary is nothing new. From Victorian fears that caused massive warehousing of the mentally ill into psychiatric hospitals, or asylums, to Jack Nicholson’s admittedly brilliant turn as Jack Torrance in The Shining, media portrayal of the mentally ill has heavily influenced how we feel about those with mental illnesses.

In other words, the media portrays the mentally ill as dangerous people who maim and kill others. It is no wonder people fear the mentally ill.

The Hidden Truth Behind Violent Images of Mental Illness

The unfortunate truth is that some people with mental illnesses do become violent. The Adam Lanzas of the world have (or had, as the case may be) serious mental illnesses that are left untreated. The Navy shipyard shooter was known to be delusional. Miriam Carey did have a history of post-partum depression. John Constantino did struggle with a mental illness for most of his life.

But what is the truth? Does having a mental illness make you more likely to become violent? Yes? No? Maybe?

According to an article published by Time, people with schizophrenia “are roughly twice as likely to be violent as those who do not have the disorder.” The risk is even greater in those who also have a substance abuse problem. However, the article goes on to state that the majority of those with schizophrenia never become violent.

The University of Washington School of Social Work has published a fact sheet debunking the idea that mental illnesses and violence are linked. ThinkProgress questioned this so-called “link” after the Sandy Hook shootings in December, stating that between 92 and 96 percent of all people with mental illnesses do not have “violent tendencies,” and the mentally ill’s contribution to the overall crime rate is low.

One study takes this even further, and states that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of crime, and not the perpetrator: “People with severe mental illnesses, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis, are 2 ½ times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population (Hiday, et al.,1999).”

These reports must be heartening, because they seem to debunk the whole idea that people with mental illnesses are more violent. It is important to note, however, that researchers are still studying mental illnesses and the behavioral issues that may arise.

Angela E. Gambrel can also be found on Google+Twitter and Facebook.

3 thoughts on “The Media’s Violent Images of Mental Illness”

  1. Unfortunately mass media industry have got one-sided portrait on violence related to mentally ill persons. The Journalist persist to support the opinion that mentally ill persons are more likely to be violent than mentally health ones. This is the end of the circle, anything more about the tremendous phenomenon of violence, as serious behavioral disorder of personality. The truth, in spite of that, indicates that mentally ill persons are alike violent as others, but hey are to be prone as victims of violent act more likely than normally mentally health persons. This misconception, that dominates the media, on the other hand, harms the appropriate psychiatric treatment and management of mentally ill patient. Everyone ought to know that mental illness is the state of mind that length for long time, it isn’t “temper tantrum” reaction of somebody. Therefore, it have to explain in comprehensive way the meaning of psychiatric terms, in order to avoid misunderstandings, with fatal consequences for mentally ill patient and their community, as well.

  2. This is a very important post, and I’m glad that you included it. I imagine that the stigma against mental illness is as old as we are. I don’t think that people with mental health issues are any more likely to be violent than people without mental health disorders; I think that when a person with a mental health disorder commits a violent act, however, the press jumps all over it, because the mentally ill are an easy target.

    I have to wonder, though, who comes up with some of these studies. According to an article published by Time, people with schizophrenia “are roughly twice as likely to be violent as those who do not have the disorder.” I’ve worked in a long-term psychiatric care facility for a while, and in my experience, people who are experiencing a mania are far more likely to become violent than people with schizophrenia.

    That people with mental health issues are more likely to be a victim of crime—that is incredibly upsetting, and I imagine it’s true. There have been recent studies that have cited the shorter life expectancy for persons with mental health issues, and some researchers believe that the lifespan of someone with mental health issues can be up to 20 YEARS shorter than a person with mental health issues. This is something that we need to learn more about!

    Again, excellent post.

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