Mental Health: Stigma On TV


Archival Charles Schultz Peanuts comic starring the character ‘Lucy’ as a Psychiatrist.

Mental Health Disorders, psychologists, and psychiatrists used to be portrayed for laughs on TV.  Looking back at some well-known shows (that many millennials may not be familiar with), we wanted to include some clips of episodes which poke fun at the stigma of both condition- and the role of ‘professionals’.

The CDC Centers for Disease Control has an extensive communications archive of entertainment and media advice, clips, research studies and more.  There is advice for would-be portrayals of mental and behavioral health issues, conditions, appropriate settings & photos, videos, movies and social media. [Manuals in fact- which we read cover to cover, word for word.]  Increasingly, people seem less tolerant for anything, [and anyone], and vent on social media in a sarcastic, mean-spirited and damaging fashion. Wrong conclusions are drawn without the complete story.

As with everything media, this has been a changing scene over the past few years and for sure past few decades.  Unless one has SPMI severe and persistent mental illness, a developmental condition with presenting symptoms and appearance, you simply can’t tell any difference, unless a person is exhibiting emotional cues of distress- which may or may not be correlated to a diagnosable condition. In other cases, it’s sadness, fear, or anger being exhibited-not exactly mental health disorders. For some, unfamiliar with sources, causes, and symptoms, a default position used to be, that a mental health disorder was a character issue, and to ‘get over it’.  That is true too, of addiction and substance use disorders. This has been highly unfortunate and forced millions to live in distress. Media portrayals have changed significantly in recent years.

Actor Bob Newhart portrays a psychologist in this sitcom. A patient comes to him with escalating list of conditions and thoughts, to which he advises to ‘stop it’. 

Frasier and Niles Crane are psychiatrists in this sitcom. Frasier hosts a call-in radio show as an expert advice-giving host; Niles is in private practice. Both are divorced, and have their share of hang-ups.  Frasier lives with his dad, a retired cop, and puts up with Dad’s dog, Eddie.

The statistics from NIMH show that those with a mental health disorder are definitely not alone.  For example, “Mental health statistics in youth are similar with 21.5% of youth ages 13-18 experiencing a severe mental illness at some point. For children ages 8-15, this number is 13% (Mental Illness in Children: Types, Symptoms, Treatments). Once people reach adulthood, the number that experiences a severe mental illness in a given year is about 4.1%.”  The Healthy Place blog reports, ‘When it comes to specific mental illnesses, more mental illness statistics are known. Anxiety disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias are the most common kind of mental illness in the United States experienced by over 18% of adults; this is followed by substance use disorders and depression.

To put the numbers in perspective, there are approximately 321,418,820 people in the United States according to U.S. Census Data estimates for 2015 as of July 1; for Ohio the count is 11,613,423.   The Healthy Place site says, ‘mental health statistics for specific illnesses in the United States include:  About 16 million adults (6.9%) have had at least one major depressive episode in the last year. About 20.7 million adults have experienced a substance use disorder with 2-in-5 of these people having an additional mental illness (known as a co-occurring, comorbid disorder or as receiving a dual diagnosis).’   Statistics show ‘2.6% of adults live with bipolar disorder and 1.1% of adults live with schizophrenia.’  You can run the percentages by age. These are high numbers. We know that a high percentage do not seek  or receive treatment.

Actress Marilyn Monroe lived with the fear that she would ‘get’ her mother’s mental illness.  See the clip here of her life as portrayed by    This is quite a different take than Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, 1987.

Finally, more recent sitcoms, examine the issues realistically and consult the experts in how they might portray mental and behavioral health disorders in a true-to-life way that accomplishes an educational goal.  The CDC Communications office not only has extensive research and recommendations for news media and entertainment industry portrayals of physical and mental health issues, but the evidence to back it up. [These are the folks who brought you those pictures of diseased lungs vs. healthy lungs in an anti-smoking blitz.] And no, they don’t always get it right. As with everything else, time brings change and a new perspective.





About Communications

Communications and Social Media @ Sequel-Pomegranate Health Systems
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