While it is obvious that negative representations of mental illness in media – such as stereotyping in film and television, and overrepresentation in news – have perpetuated stigma, this harmful influence appears to have persisted in new and unique ways.[1] In recent years, some media outlets have begun to romanticizethat is, to reframe as desirablethose with mental illness and cognitive differences. This can further stigma and misperceptions, and may also discourage help-seeking behavior.

Perhaps the most clear examples of this romanticization are found in the several sitcoms or comedy series that use mental illness or cognitive difference as a vehicle for laughs. The sitcom The Big Bang Theory bases much of its comedic nature on Sheldon Cooper, who, based on criteria mentioned in the DSM-V, seems to show symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.[2] While diagnosing fictional characters is not usually accurate or effective, much of the comedic nature of The Big Bang Theory seems to rely on viewers seeing Sheldon as cognitively and intellectually ‘different.’ Despite representatives of the show explicitly stating that the character does not have autism,[3] his difficulty connecting with others, high attention to detail, and peculiar habits, coupled with his exceptional intelligence, seem to similarly match this particular diagnosis.[2]

As well, Monica Geller, a character from the classic sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S, seems to show signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), based on the criteria mentioned on the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) website.[4] She exhibits obsessions, such as her fear of contamination, which manifests in a compulsive washing of her apartment, though is interpreted and conveyed by her friends as a simple love for cleanliness. She also shows an obsessive fear of things becoming disordered, which is portrayed in her acute sensitivity to things being moved even slightly out of place, and her subsequent distress when things have not been ordered in the ‘right’ way.[4]

However, before proceeding it is important to note that these characters aren’t necessarily seen as harmful portrayals. Sheldon Cooper has actually been very well received among some members of the autism community. Advocates from Autism Speaks stated: “in our community, the biggest reason why people seem to be drawn to [Sheldon] is that he’s absolutely genuine. He is who he is and doesn’t pretend to be someone he isn’t. He’s just his own unique self.”[5] This points to the weight behind their slogan: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”[5] Even though it may not be the producers’ intent, Sheldon Cooper seems to be perceived by those in the community to have a ‘mad pride’ mentality, in that he embraces exactly who he is; he accepts his cognitive differences as part of his identity rather than viewing it as a pathology.

It is also refreshing, and can be positive, to see characters who have overt symptoms of mental illness or cognitive difference, yet are very successful in demanding fields. This is not only a positive connection to be made for those with abnormal psychology in general, it has also given hope to some families in the autism community, who have stated that they were curious about what the future of living with autism would look like.[5] These families found that seeing Sheldon as an adult and a functional member of society with full independence, a job, friends, and a girlfriend, gave them hope and comfort for the futures of their children.[5]  

Despite this, these representations are still problematic, and offer incomplete views. In the portrayals of both Monica and Sheldon, it is not accurately conveyed how thoroughly a mental illness or cognitive difference can infiltrate almost every facet of one’s life. This downplays what can be the intense and consuming struggle that can occur. The illnesses these characters have are portrayed as mere parts of their personalitiesharmless traits that makes them cute, quirky, interesting, even funny. This leads to both trivialization of the illness itself, and at the same time establishes that these tendencies are socially desired. Would we love Sheldon just as much is he wasn’t a stubborn, awkward genius, or Monica if she wasn’t hypersensitive about her apartment? These romanticized portrayals send the message that tendencies drawn from mental illness or cognitive differences are interesting and loveable; they make them appear desirable.

The common use of OCD as an adjective to describe being particular about something perfectly illustrates this effect.[6] In an article published in 2012, Jeff Szymanski, Executive Director of the International OCD Foundation, outlines an important difference between obsessive as a personality trait, versus an actual disorder, in the sense that the former is a matter of personal preference, while the latter affects one’s ability to function.[7] Szymanski acknowledges the danger behind casually claiming to have OCD, without addressing the life-altering loss of function that characterizes the disorder, in stating, “You’re now mixing a distressing psychological disorder with a personality preference, and when you mix them, you lose the severity of the disorder.” [7]

On a similar note, by linking mental illness or cognitive difference with success while simultaneously downplaying its severity, romanticization creates unrealistic representations. In this case, it is the painful reality of living with a psychological difference made to appear easy. Portraying Sheldon Cooper as a high achiever may attract expectations of how one should be able to cope with mental illness, while what has been found in human psychology, and the internal struggle Sheldon should logically face, is ignored. With high expectations often comes a desire to continually excel,[8] and failing to meet these expectations may then result in perceived inferiority.[9] This can then, of course, lead to very negative thinking.[9] This effect is particularly seen among individuals that have high expectations for themselves, and encounter minor setbacks,[10] worsened by the fact that high achievers can often have little resilience, and inability to deal with failure.[9] In portraying Sheldon as an effortlessly successful achiever, viewers may draw conclusions about how someone with mental illness should be able to function.

In each of these aspects of inaccurate portrayals, perhaps the most dangerous result is the potential for those who should reach out for professional help to refrain from doing so. If symptoms of mental illness make one loveable and interesting, why would one ever want to be treated, and potentially lose them? As well, if one would be socially welcomed and admired for possessing such ‘traits,’ what makes seeking help anything but a cry for attention, or worse, an overreaction? And, as in Sheldon’s case, if one has a mental illness but maintains a high level of success, what is the need for seeking help?

Multiple studies have shown that negative media portrayals of mental illness can decrease help-seeking behaviour due to increased stigma.[11, 12] Despite researchers and those in the field of psychology recommending positive representations of mental illness to help combat this, misinformation and exaggeration are still in these more positive stereotypes, which may also lead to increased stigma.[12, 13] Thus, it can be inferred that the positive portrayals that might increase stigma might also lead to a decrease in help-seeking behavior. Although this effect has not been explicitly studied, it is a worthwhile topic to explore that has important social implications.

In a mass literature review on stigma and its relation to help-seeking behaviours, German scientists from Leipzig University found that although destigmatization may lead to increased readiness to seek help, other aspects of progression of awareness, such as accurate knowledge about mental illness and cognitive difference, seem to be just as important in contributing to increasing help-seeking behavior.[14] Thus, regardless of whether the framing of the portrayal is positive or negative, the effect is still the samethat is, the problem of  misinformation still exists. If those with a mental illness are being fed these inaccurate portrayals and exaggerations, they are being misinformed about what actually comprises a mental illness. Misinformation fuels stigma, and prevents the proper comprehension of what is really needed to help.

And yet, the media can be a crucial ally in a pivotal movement to help increase education and awareness, and help those who live with mental illness seek the help they need.[12] Thus, what is needed is for the media to incorporate the lived experiences of those with mental illness or cognitive difference, and put these individuals at the forefront of the conversation. In addition, media sources may stress the implications that some current media representations can have, and how more accurate portrayals can improve public perception, and hence the lives of those living with mental illness or cognitive difference. This would lead to a wider shift in accurate portrayals that would better educate, further inform, and would help those who need to seek professional help to actually do so once they recognize the scope and severity of the issues they are living with.

Moving forward, the aim should be to depict the reality of circumstances even within comedy series and the like, as the failure to do so could have negative consequences. What this means is rewriting the script – that is, taking into account lived experiences and incorporating them into these series in order to better represent what actually is the case.  

By: Christina Gizzo

Image by: Phoebe Maharaj



[1] CMHA. Stigma Matters: The Media’s Impact on Public Perceptions of Mental Illness

[2] Mayes, S., Calhoun, S., & Crites, D. (2001). Journal Of Abnormal Child Psychology, 29(3), 263-271. http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/a:1010337916636

[3] Why Our Autism Community Loves Sheldon Cooper. (2016). Autism Speaks. Retrieved 22 September 2016, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2014/08/13/why-our-autism-community-loves-sheldon-cooper

[4] CAMH (2012) What is obsessive-compulsive disorder? Retrived from: http://www.camh.ca/en/hospital/health_information/a_z_mental_health_and_addiction_information/obsessi ve_compulsive_disorder/obsessive_compulsive_disorder_information_guide/Pages/ocd_whatis.aspx

[5] Autism Speaks (2014) Why Our Autism Community Loves Sheldon Cooper. Retrieved from: https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2014/08/13/why-our-autism-community-loves-sheldon-cooper#comment-1541869524

[6]  The Atlantic (2015). OCD is a disorder not a quirk. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/02/ocd-is-a-disorder-not-a-quirk/385562/  

[7] Szymanski, J. (2012). Using direct-to-consumer marketing strategies with obsessive-compulsive disorder in the nonprofit sector. Behavior therapy, 43(2), 251-256.

[8] American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015). High achievers and perfectionists. Retrieved from:


[9] Spargo, C. (2015). Parents share tragic suicide note of ivy league track star, 19, who jumped to her death from a parking garage and left gifts for friends and family members nearby. Retrieved from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2920310/Parents-share-tragic-suicide-note-Ivy-League-track-star-19-jumped-death-parking-garage-left-gifts-friends-family-members-nearby.html

[10] Feather, N. T. (1961). The relationship of persistence at a task to expectation of success and achievement related motives. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 552.

[11]  Pirkis, J., Blood, R. W., Francis, C., & McCallum, K. (2006). On-screen portrayals of mental illness: Extent, nature, and impacts. Journal of health communication, 11(5), 523-541.

[12]  Stuart, H. (2006). Media portrayal of mental illness and its treatments. CNS drugs, 20(2), 99-106.

[13]  Klin, A., & Lemish, D. (2008). Mental disorders stigma in the media: Review of studies on production, content, and influences. Journal of health communication, 13(5), 434-449.

[13] CMHA. Mass Media and Mental Illness: A Literature Review. Retrieved from: http://ontario.cmha.ca/files/2012/07/mass_media.pdf

[14]  Schomerus, G., & Angermeyer, M. C. (2008). Stigma and its impact on help-seeking for mental disorders: what do we know?. Epidemiologia e psichiatria sociale, 17(01), 31-37.