Having rarely chatted with a stranger on the bus, it was a fairly new experience for me when the person sitting next to me asked about my schoolwork. Interestingly, he did not reveal until later on in the conversation that he was a high-functioning person with schizophrenia. But what is worth point out is that he did not demonstrate any of the stereotypes that are often associated with persons with schizophrenia.

What do we usually think of when we hear about someone with schizophrenia? They’re violent. They’re dangerous. They can’t be trusted. You shouldn’t be left alone with them. They’ll kill you.

Yet, my new companion was no different than anyone else on the bus.

He was very open and willing to talk about the stereotypes surrounding mental illness and how it has often been depicted in the news, leading society to believe that persons with mental disorders were violent, incompetent, or unpredictable. Sadly these stereotypes, along with many myths about mental illness, persist and contribute to the stigma around mental illness.

To the average media studies student, it would not come as a shock that society’s perception can be (and often is) influenced by the media, which, in turn, reinforces misconceptions.

However, the media can also be used positively. This is evidenced by mental health campaigns such as the Healthy Minds Canada/Bell Let’s Talk, a Bell Canada initiative dedicated to breaking down false notions about mental health and mental disorders by promoting nationwide discussion on the topic and gathering funding to support mental health initiatives. In fact, there has been an increasing amount of advocacies addressing the stigma, such as Unleash the Noise which is an annual event that began in 2013 by The Jack Project [1] and stands as Canada’s only student-led mental health innovation summit. Furthermore, the establishment of the Mental Health Commission of Canada [2] in 2007 has led to numerous initiatives that focus on reducing stigma and improving the mental health system. By having the news feature such events, organizations, and projects, society’s views can begin to change.

Compared to the past, the news industry is much more mindful when publicizing mental health; Canadian journalists have even created a field guide for reporting on mental health called Mindset [3]. This guide highlights how important it is for journalists to get the facts right when it comes to reporting mental health and illness; it also advises them on how they can prevent the spread of misinformation and reduce stigma.  Yet, can we say the same improvement has been seen in the entertainment industries?

From cinematic movies to YouTube-streamed music videos, the entertainment industry can reach massive audiences, which can be worrisome when negative mental health stereotypes are portrayed.

Consider highly acclaimed movies, such as Black Swan, a film depicting a ballerina experiencing schizophrenia. Black Swan was praised by psychologists for accurately illustrating the symptoms of schizophrenia (albeit abstractly). However, it portrayed many negative scenes, such as recreational drug consumption, strong sexual content, and graphic scenes of mutilation, which some consider to be negative portrayals of mental illness that could influence people’s perceptions.

Unfortunately, it is more difficult to oppose the media presented in the entertainment industry as compared to that in the news industry. Perhaps it is due to the different natures of these industries. The news industry is tasked with the responsibility of presenting accurate information and needs to be closely scrutinized. In contrast, the entertainment industry is regulated instead by “artistic liberties”.

That being said, stereotypes are not solely the product of media industries, but rather propagated by them. So the question is, since both industries appeal to the masses, should the entertainment industry be just as mindful in portraying mental illnesses? Even if it may restrict artistic liberties and hence, the nature of cinematic movies such as Black Swan?


By: Serena Soleimani
Edited by: Alisia Bonnick
Image by: Samer Lazkani



[1] Check out http://www.jack.org/ to get involved and see more of their initiatives.

[2] Find out more about their projects at http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/.

[3] See http://www.mindset-mediaguide.ca/ for this noteworthy initiative.


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