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How TV is changing perceptions of mental disorders

Published: Wednesday, April 16 2014 12:45 a.m. MDT

In this image released by Showtime, Claire Danes portrays Carrie Mathison in a scene from the Showtime original series, "Homeland." Mathison is a Central Intelligence Agency officer who suffers from a bipolar disorder.

Kent Smith, Associated Press

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Jessica Lane began worrying something was wrong with her as a high school student.

To outsiders, she seemed to have it all; she was a pretty varsity athlete in Renton, Wash., with good grades, great friends and a supportive family. But others didn't know she pretended to be ill and locked herself in her room because she couldn’t handle going to movies or dances with friends. She was weighed down by worries and sadness.

"Some days it felt like there was one of those cartoon dark clouds above my head and sunshine and blue skies above everyone else," said Lane, who is now a college student, wife and mother living in Boise.

After Lane was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at the age of 14, she felt a profound sense of shame. Her family knew she was ill and tried to help her, but she feared other people (even her longtime high school boyfriend) would believe she was weak or crazy. She had seen mentally ill people portrayed as "weird and off, sad loner types, or criminally insane" in the media, and she didn't want to be placed in any of these categories. For years, she attempted to keep her suffering secret.

Lane is one of many Americans afflicted by mental illness. Researchers reported that in 2005, approximately 26 percent of adults in America suffered from at least one mental disorder or substance use disorder during the previous year, according to the 2012 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Behavioral Health Report.

And some mentally ill individuals are afraid to seek help because a particular ailment has been stigmatized in the media, according to Evan Katz, a leading therapist and author. While portrayals of mental illness in the media have become more accurate in recent years with shows like "Homeland" and "Elementary," some films and TV shows continue to form and spread damaging views of mental disorders and treatment methods.

Fear and mental illness

A number of films — particularly older films, notes Katz — led viewers to believe mentally ill individuals threaten others' safety. In Alfred Hitchcock's classic film "Psycho," for example, a schizophrenic man dressed as his mother stabs guests — including a young woman in the shower during a famous scene — staying in the hotel he manages.

Films like this cause viewers to believe schizophrenic people are dangerous. But Katz said the majority of people with schizophrenia are harmless.

"Most people who have schizophrenia are not high-risk or dangerous," said Katz. "They just make people uncomfortable because people aren't used to seeing someone just talking to themself out loud."

Cirecie A West-Olatunji, president of the American Counseling Association and an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, said older films that featured a character with a mental disorder, such as the horror film "The Bad Seed" (1956), provided a very "stylized" and one-dimensional depiction of mental illness.

"('The Bad Seed') doesn’t really provide excellent examples of what (mental illness) looks like, how it impacts the family and what some of the interventions are," said West-Olatunji.

Mental illness exaggerated, used as excuse for bad behavior

Some recent films (outside of the horror genre) try to provide more nuanced portrayal of mental disorders but still spread incorrect information.

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