This paper will endeavour to explore ways in which the portrayal of issues surrounding mental illness in popular media impacts societal perception of the subject matter. The media I chose to analyze for this purpose is a popular American teen-drama television-series called 90210. The reason I chose this particular show is because I wanted to focus my analysis on the effects the portrayal of mental health in popular media has on the awareness the school-aged population in North America have of this topic.
The target audience of 90210 is between ages of 18-24, making this TV-show a perfect candidate for my intended analysis. I speculate that many teenagers who watched this show had their first encounter with a mental illness through it, making it an experience which affected their opinions on this topic. The drama revolves around a group of wealthy teenagers and the challenges they face as they mature and develop into young adults. The character struggling with mental health is Erin Silver – a 15-year-old girl with a cool and quirky personality.
Occasionally, she displays rebellious qualities and may appear as somewhat emotionally-troubled which one might attribute to the struggles in her childhood. Silver’s character is complex and although she exemplifies the behaviour of a normal American teenager, at times it can be described as dark, asocial, and vengeful. At a young age, she experiences the trauma of her parents’ nasty divorce which resulted in her father’s abandonment and her mother’s alcohol addiction.
Her mother takes out all her anger and pain on Silver, verbally abusing and blaming her, thus making the home a completely inhospitable environment. She exhibits behavioural patterns of repressed anger, in addition to extreme mood swings. Her boyfriend often complains that she is “too intense” and calls her a “drama queen” because of her constantly oscillating moods. Seemingly insignificant occurrences or ideas suddenly make her overly excited and obsessive while equally insignificant problems cause her to go into a fit of rage and completely lose control of her emotions.
The mood oscillation reaches a climax when Silver finds herself in love for the first time and is overwhelmed with the novelty of the intense positive emotions. She starts speaking very quickly, interrupting others and unable to follow her train of thought, making herself overly excited and hyper to the point that she cannot sleep. She attempts to execute a grandiose idea but it fails making her boyfriend upset and this in turn triggers Silver’s plunge into an emotional black hole. This situation culminates with a complete mental breakdown – she becomes incoherent, delusional, paranoid, and physically violent.
It is interesting to note that none of the adults who are helping her at this time, including professional educators like a guidance counsellor, a teacher, and a school principle, all assume that she is on drugs. Her boyfriend is the only one who recognizes that she has a mental illness, diagnosing her with Manic Depression and Bipolar Disorder because he notices the similarity in Silver’s erratic behaviour to that of his birthmother. Eventually, she ends up hospitalized, where doctors confirm her diagnosis, and manage to stabilize her condition with the help of therapy and medication. Societal Perception of ‘mental health’
Visual media like films and TV-shows often portray characters with mental illness in a stereotypically negative fashion – frequently as a person who is hopeless, dangerous, and deranged. However, Margarita Tartakovsky, M. S. , an Associate Editor at Psych Central, opines that “[o]verall, 90210 does a decent job of portraying bipolar disorder” (2009). Although 90210 manages to challenge some of the commonly-held misconceptions about mental health, there is certainly room for improvement as the portrayal may lead the younger viewers to form some inaccurate assumptions about bipolar disorder.
The show illustrates that there is not just one treatment but are a number of different treatments available to those struggling with bipolar disorder. Young viewers see Silver taking medication, meeting with a therapist, and filling out a mood chart at certain intervals during the day, after she is released from the hospital. Moreover, the show challenges the destructive myth still commonly held in society that the cause of mental illnesses is bad parenting (CMHA, 2014).
This belief is discouraging as it wrongly places all the blame on the parents, where in reality, mental diagnoses are complex illnesses that arise from a number of various factors such as genetics, environment, and life experiences. If a teen is taught to blame his parents for his or her mental disorder then it may strain family relationships and that person may miss an opportunity to benefit from the support and help of his or her loved ones. Furthermore, this show promotes the positive idea that although managing bipolar disorder (or any mental illness) can be a challenge, it is possible to lead a productive and fulfilling life.
The scene illustrating the above portrays Silver’s boyfriend’s birthmother (who also suffers from bipolar disorder) happy and doing well. Teens would perceive that character as a role model for someone who despite the chronic bipolar disorder diagnosis is leading a healthy life with continued treatment. This positive portrayal is a drastic difference from the widespread stigma around those struggling with mental illnesses in the popular media. Lastly, the show touches on one of the biggest misconceptions society has of mental illness – the assignment of fault or blame on the patient for their mental illness (Tartakovsky, 2009).
When Silver’s friends refer to her bipolar disorder, they describe it as a disease, which in an of itself is already an illustration of a positive change in attitude. For example, when talking about his biological mother Silver’s boyfriend points out that it was not his mother’s fault that she has bipolar and that she just needed treatment (Tartakovsky, 2009). Conversely, there are some instances when the show’s portrayal of mental illness is not as proactive as it could be which may lead to viewers ascribing to skewed opinions and wrong assumptions on the topic.
This show specifically focuses on a severe case of bipolar disorder type 1. What young viewers may not be aware of, however, is that there is a wide spectrum of severity and behaviour. Certain individuals may experience milder manic episodes but longer periods of depression. In reality, people’s experiences with bipolar vary greatly, but the assumption teens may get from this show is that everyone who has bipolar will act just like Silver. It is important to be conscious as a consumer of popular media that even when a character’s portrayal is accurate, it is just one character’s struggle.
Tartakovsky writes that “mental health exists on a multi-axis spectrum” with intersecting various factors, and that no two people’s experiences are alike (2013). Lastly, the show does nothing to object to the erroneous public perception that people with mental illnesses are violent and dangerous – a damaging stigma that is often portrayed in the media. In fact, “… people who experience a mental illness are no more violent than people without a mental illness” (CMHA, 2014). Rather, “people who experience mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of violence than to be violent” (CMHA, 2014).
Silver’s violent physical attack on her teacher – she breaks into his house by smashing his window and throws a glass bottle at his head in a fit of rage – only perpetuates the negative stereotype. The way 90210 portrays the adults’ reaction to Silver’s mental breakdown may have an impact on the viewers struggling with mental health which would not be conducive to them getting appropriate treatment. In the show, every adult involved with the situation as it was unfolding, assumed that Silver is on drugs, illustrating the fact that the majority of our society is not familiar with the symptoms and signs of a mental illness.
Silver displayed some classic bipolar symptoms, including erratic, reckless behaviour, racing speech, grandiose ideas, hyper-sexuality, lack of sleep, euphoria, and confusion. Manic phases often lead to destructive decisions and Silver was not an exception to this – it ended with her at the train station, rambling and bewildered, running toward a speeding train. Even in such a clear example, neither her sister, who is a school guidance counsellor, nor her English teacher, nor even her principle was able to recognize that her erratic and uncharacteristic behaviour could be a result of a mental condition.
This can impact young viewers by instilling fear to speak up about their emotional-behavioural difficulties to education professionals or parents because according to this show, adults are not aware of the signs of mental illness but would rather assume that the student has a drug problem. That is a serious allegation, one a teenager would likely want to avoid; and after watching this show he or she may potentially decide against speaking up about their emotional problems. The importance of structure and routine is also emphasized in this episode. Silver’s sister has her following a strictly regimented day-schedule.
The show may exaggerate the importance for dramatic effect, but it is in fact true that even slight changes in one’s routine, such as skipping several hours of sleep, can trigger a manic episode. Another positive idea this show promotes is that it urges not to let the disorder define a person’s identity. This is a commonly held negative perception that can apply to any mental illness. 90210 paints an affirmative picture of Silver’s character – despite her struggles with bipolar disorder, she does very well academically, winning the Top English Student award, she is ashionable, and is a great sister, daughter, and friend.
Media’s Representation of Mental Health Compared to its Representation in Course Material: The mass media’s power to impact public perception and the degree to which people are exposed to media representations makes the mass media one of the most significant influences in developed societies. The Canadian public undeniably relies on mass media as its primary source of information. However, when it comes to mental illness, the media tends to skew reality.
For better or worse, the media shapes our ideas and ways in which we understand those around us. For those suffering from mental illnesses, the implications of the often negative and inaccurate portrayals of mental health issues are significant. Inaccurate information in the media about mental illness, even if the portrayal of an individual is positive, results in misunderstandings that can have considerable and very real consequences. For example, inaccurate depictions of bipolar disorder can lead to false beliefs, confusion, conflict, and a delay in receiving treatment.
Unlike physical ailments, many mental illnesses are associated with stigma. Whether it is self-directed or from society, dealing with this “shame” can be debilitating and interfere with daily living. The mentally ill continue to receive negative attention, largely due to fear and prejudice. People who suffer from mental illness are often pushed to the fringes of, or are directly excluded from, society (Baun, 2009). 90210’s portrayal of adult behaviour in response to Silver’s cry for help is consistent with the Special Report on CBC – “Off Course on Campus” we viewed in the course.
One of the panellists in the discussion on Canadian public health crisis – Eric Windeler – is a parent of a son who struggled with mental health and as a result, committed suicide. Eric Windeler makes an observation post the tragedy, that neither he, nor the rest of his family or community were prepared to discuss this subject at the time when it could have saved his son’s life. He is of the opinion that the majority of Canadian parents and caregivers are uninformed on the signs of mental health issues and are not knowledgeable as to the appropriate response.
The television series 90210 appears to corroborate this reality – portraying the older generation as being clueless, especially compared to the youth who have recently become more aware and enlightened on the topic. The show suggests that educators are ill-prepared to manage the severity of mental health concerns that they are observing in classrooms, which is very similar to what our course reading Scanning the Practice Landscape in School-based Mental Health (Short, Ferguson, & Santor, 2009a).
Studies indicate that up to one in five Canadian children and youth suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. Many more students experience mental health difficulties that cause significant barriers to normal academic, emotional and social-developmental tasks. Despite the existence of many school-based initiatives to prevent and intervene with students experiencing difficulties, educators acknowledge that current approaches are not dealing with the problems systematically and effectively (Short, Ferguson, & Santor, 2009b).
Social determinants of health are indirectly alluded to in the television series – Silver’s economic, and family environment may perhaps increase the chances of her being the character that develops a mental illness. Comparing her situation to the social determinants of health comprised at York University Conference, it is easy to spot a number of them applying to Silver’s context. First and foremost, she is a female, and females are statistically more prone to mental health issues compared to males.
The Mental Health Supplement of the German National Health Interview and Examination Survey – found that “25% of men had experienced a psychological disorder in the previous 12 months; the figure for women was 37%” (Freeman, 2013). In addition, Silver faces difficulties with her living situation – prior to her mental breakdown, she is forced to find refuge from her mother’s verbal abuse at a women’s shelter. Certainly, for a fifteen year old girl who is already dealing with academic stressors at school, the added anxiety and fear of going home would only exacerbate the problem, potentially triggering a profound emotional response.
Furthermore, although in absolute terms Silver would not be pegged as someone struggling with poverty, her relative financial situation compared to all of her friends and classmates, leaves her at the very bottom of the income distribution scale. This state of affairs, coupled with her personal asocial tendencies, causes her to be frequently socially excluded at school. Each of these social determinants of health would have a significant effect on the mental health of an individual according to Raphael and Mikkonen (2010), and Silver’s exposure to an malgamation of them aggravated her exposure to a mental illness. Personal Response: Through my research for this assignment, I have learned that I have had some preconceived perceptions about mental illness that I had not been critical about before. It is highly likely that my personal assumptions on the subject had been formed earlier through a combination of popular media sources and how mental health was portrayed in them.
It is important to recognize that we form these ideas and opinions which may be at best incorrect, or at worst, detrimental to ourselves and others, subconsciously – without analyzing and evaluating them. This assignment was invaluable in helping me to bring to my perceptions to light and to critically assess them. Although it is difficult to admit, I probably would have considered someone with a severe case of mental illness like Bipolar Disorder I as violent and dangerous to themselves and others, prior to taking this course.
Likely, this idea resulted from me not being knowledgeable enough to understand what this diagnosis entails and what it means to struggle with mental health. In addition, I was not fully conscious of the fact that mental illness come in a complex scale with a wide gradation of severity, which after my research I am very aware of. Furthermore, I confess that I was not aware of how well a person with a serious mental illness can be managed.
Recognizing that treatment is effective and can lead to a productive and fulfilling life for an individual struggling with a chronic mental disorder diagnosis is very important in dealing with the public’s stigma surrounding the issue. To conclude, mental health portrayal by the media is often inaccurate, which leads to faulty depictions that fuel public stigma and may prevent people from seeking help. Psychologist Ryan Howes writes “There are people out there who could benefit from therapy but don’t go because they think it’s just for ‘crazy’ people – because that’s what they see in the media”.