Stigma doesn’t just disappear – it only gradually fades, or, God forbid, gets worse. A recent U.S. News article presents research that suggests that both are happening in the U.S. right now. The study examines various representative samples of over 1,000 U.S. adults and their perceptions of depression, alcohol dependence, and schizophrenia in 1996, 2006, and 2018. Over the years, it appears that Americans’ “mental health literacy,” or understanding that mental illnesses are medical conditions, has improved. In addition, Americans in 2018 were less likely to avoid people with depression, which is a good sign. On the other hand, though, attitudes towards alcohol dependence and schizophrenia are worsening, with around 60% of the 2018 sample viewing the former as a character flaw and around another 60% viewing the latter as an indication of being “dangerous.” These changes could be attributed to the increase in high-profile figures and celebrities openly talking about their struggles with depression, or the prevalence of antidepressant ads, both of which could help “normalize” depression. Conversely, however, the media portrayal of alcohol dependence and schizophrenia helped perpetrate negative stereotypes. For example, the recent spike in gun violence has prompted people to erroneously fabricate a relationship between mental illness and violence.
This article demonstrates just how much of an impact media can have on people’s stigma. Media is also a double-edged sword – while it has the power to reduce people’s stigma, it is equally disposed to increase it. It all comes down to how we use it. Given media’s important role in public opinion, it is the responsibility of the distributors to be mindful of potential impacts. I’m definitely not arguing for restricting free speech in the media; that would obviously be unconstitutional. What I’m saying is that media producers should watch out for the effects of their media outside of the intended effect. For example, media coverage of gun violence is not intended to stigmatize mental illness (though if it is, that is a different issue). Thus, news organizations should make sure that the way they portray violence accounts for the potential stigmatizing effects. That said, doing so is much easier said than done. A more immediate solution would probably be to counter the negative effects of the media with mental health advocacy – something that is already being done, by people like Michelle. As history has shown us, though, advocacy by itself only gets us so far and it is necessary for our institutions and the government to expend effort towards the goal of reducing stigma.