The Media's Impact on Public Perception of Mental Illness

Article ID: 18880

Released: 15-May-2000 12:00 AM EDT

Source Newsroom: Mental Health America

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For Embargoed Release
Monday, May 15, 3:30 PM
News Conference 3:00 - 3:30 APA Press Briefing Room, E270
McCormick Place, Lakeside Center, Level Two
Contacts: Lea Ann Browning-McNee, NMHA
(Cell 301-461-9351)
Kim DiFonzo, Burson-Marsteller


Negative Media Images of People with Mental Illness
Impact America's Perception
National Mental Health Association Survey Focuses on
Entertainment and News Media

Chicago, IL (May 15, 2000) -- Drug addicts, alcoholics and criminalsÖthat is how half of the American public report seeing people with mental illness portrayed in the entertainment media, according to a new survey by the National Mental Health Association. In addition, many see people with mental illness portrayed as violent, scary, dangerous, victims of crime, or sad and lonely. The findings were released today at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting.

"Media images of people with mental illness are prolific," said Michael Faenza, MSSW, president and CEO of the National Mental Health Association. "Unfortunately, the images are of out-of-control people and are out-of-line with reality, leading the public to form misguided opinions on the effectiveness of treating mental illness." According to the survey, based on what respondents have seen in the news and entertainment media, only one-third believe that most or almost all people can be helped with treatment, and only 42 percent think that about half of those with mental illnesses can benefit from treatment. "That may be the perception, but the fact is that the treatment success rate for clinical depression is 80 percent and it is 60 percent for schizophrenia," said Faenza.

In addition to Faenza, a panel of experts reacted to the survey findings and provided their own insights on the media's portrayal of mental illness. Michael Blumenfield, MD, chairman of the APA Joint Commission on Public Affairs, and George Gerbner, Bell Atlantic Professor of Telecommunications at Temple University and Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania were featured. Bill Kurtis, anchor of Investigative Reports on A&E Network, moderated the panel.

In his remarks, Faenza highlighted the differences in the news and entertainment industry. With the news industry, three times as many people said that stories in the news portrayed people with mental illness in a negative light than said stories were generally positive. "However, more than half believe that news coverage of mental illness in the past several years has improved the public's understanding of these illnesses and a full 74 percent say what they have seen would make them more likely to encourage someone with a mental illness to seek treatment."

With entertainment programs, the discrepancy between positive and negative images is wider. While half said people with mental illness are often portrayed as drug addicts and criminals, only 18 percent say they often were portrayed as people who can cope successfully. Only 7 percent reported often seeing people with mental illness who have successfully overcome their illness.

"I wonder how many people with mental illness may have delayed or avoided getting help because of how treatment is conveyed in certain entertainment programs," said Dr. Blumenfield. "While a majority of respondents find that their psychiatrist or other mental health professionals are shown in TV, movies or books as 'knowledgeable,' 'expert,' 'smart,' and 'caring'; unfortunately, about half also say they are depicted as 'manipulative' or as 'having as many problems as their patients.'"

"The stories we see become the basis of our reality," said Dr. Gerbner. "Whether it is a television sitcom, movie or even a cartoon, the images of people with mental illness as violent or chronically delusional are with us throughout our lives. If that is what we predominantly see, that is what we will predominantly believe."

Kurtis added, "Respectfully portraying people with mental illness in the entertainment media is an
important element of overcoming some of the negative stereotypes. The survey results show that the entertainment media seems to be behind the curve on the treatment and portrayal of individuals with mental illness."

Other highlighted findings include:
∑ About three-quarters of Americans say they have heard or seen something on the news about mental illness during the past six months.
∑ The news sources that people chiefly rely upon for information about mental illness are TV news magazine shows (70 percent), newspapers (58 percent) and TV news (51 percent).
∑ Four out of five Americans said they have heard or seen news stories specifically about depression (79 percent) followed by eating disorders (71 percent) and Attention Deficit Disorder (68 percent).

Faenza cited that the majority (57 percent) of respondents said they know someone who has been diagnosed by a doctor or psychologist as having a mental illness. "This statistic shows the pervasiveness of mental illness. It is estimated that one in five adults has a diagnosable mental disorder and one in four families will have a member with a mental illness."

According to Faenza, the media needs to become better educated about mental illness in order to present accurate messages to the public. For example, more than one out of three Americans who has seen or heard news stories about medications said they heard that medicines that treat mental illnesses cause people to be violent. "This type of misinformation propagates stigma," said Faenza, "and can keep people out of treatment. In fact, nearly two-thirds of all people with diagnosable mental disorders do not seek treatment. We call on the media to work with advocates and people with mental illnesses to provide America with accurate, balanced portrayals."

The telephone survey was conducted on April 27-30, 2000 in preparation for the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting. The survey, commissioned by the National Mental Health Association and conducted by Opinion Research Corporation International, consisted of a sample of 1,022 adults comprising 494 men and 528 women 18 years of age and older. The margin of error for a survey of this size is +/- 3 percent.


The National Mental Health Association will post an executive summary as of 3:30 PM today at

The National Mental Health Association is the country's oldest and largest nonprofit organization addressing all aspects of mental health and mental illness. With more than 340 affiliates nationwide, NMHA works to improve the mental health of all Americans through advocacy, education, research and service.

American Psychiatric Association
Annual Meeting 2000 - Chicago, IL
Press Briefing Schedule

MONDAY, MAY 15, 2000

9-9:30 a.m. - APA Press Briefing: "Psychiatric Aspects of Violence"

10-10:30 a.m. - Industry-sponsored briefing: "New Advances in the Treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder" SmithKline Beecham; Cohn & Wolfe Healthcare-New York

2-2:30 p.m. - Industry-sponsored briefing: "A Selective NRI Antidepressant in European and Latin American Clinical Practice" Pharmacia Corporation; Ketchum Public Relations-Boston

3-3:30 p.m. - Industry-sponsored briefing: "Stigma Matters: Assessing the Media's Impact and Presentation of Mental Illness" National Mental Health Association, the American Psychiatric Association and Burson-Marsteller-Washington, DC

TUESDAY, MAY 16, 2000

9-9:30 a.m. - APA Press Briefing: "Electronic Medical Privacy and Patient Confidentiality"

10-10:30 a.m. - Industry-sponsored briefing: "Minority Fellows Roundtable Discussion: What We Heard" AstraZeneca; Minority Fellowship Program; National Alliance for the Mentally Ill; Burson-Marsteller-Chicago

2-2:30 p.m. - Industry-sponsored briefing: "Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Exploring the Consequences and New Treatment Options" Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories; Edelman PR Worldwide-New York

3-3:30 p.m. - Industry-sponsored briefing: "Bipolar Illness: Treating Mania" Eli Lilly and Company; Chamberlain Communications Group-New York


9-9:30 a.m. - APA Press Briefing: "Psychiatry and Special Populations"

10-10:30 a.m. - Industry-sponsored briefing: "Performance Evaluation: Depression Drugs and Sexual Function" Dept. of Psychiatry & Neurosexology, Leyenburg Hospital, Netherlands; Forest Laboratories; BSMG Worldwide-Chicago


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