Richard G. Petty, MD

The Media and Mental Illness

Since time immemorial, mental illness has been used as a dramatic device, with sometimes appalling consequences. Too often people with mental illness have been depicted as dangerous villains, and for anyone working with the mentally ill, many of the portrayals of their experiences are inaccurate and inept. As a simple example, those over-wrought European movies in which one can tell that the protagonist is about to be taken away because he is seeing visions of the Virgin Mary speaking to him. Yet it is well recognized that such cross-modal hallucinations are vanishingly rare in mental illness, and are more likely to betray substance abuse, malingering or, rarely, an organic lesion of the brain.

For all the good that came of A Beautiful Mind, we are all well aware that the depictions of John Nash’s experiences made a good story, but were far from the experiences of the mentally ill. One of the first-ever sympathetic depictions of mental illness and of one person’s triumph, was the movie Out of Darkness , starring Diana Ross, on which Kimberly Littrell was the technical director.

For the last decade many of us have realized the importance of helping the media provide accurate representations of mental illness, and some of the contributors to this blog have been doing that by appearing on radio and television programs throughout the world.

A new paper discusses the research that has consistently demonstrated that news media and the entertainment industry have provided overwhelmingly dramatic and distorted images of mental illness that tend to emphasize dangerousness, criminality and unpredictability. Research also indicates that the media has in effect modeled negative reactions to the mentally ill, which have included fear, rejection and ridicule. Not so long ago, there was an infamous occasion on which Time magazine used the word “nuts” three times during their report of a tragic – and rare – case of violence perpetrated by someone struggling with mental illness. This paper makes the important point that the media can be an important ally in challenging prejudice, initiating public debate, and projecting positive, human interest stories about people who live with mental illness. It is heartening that several major syndicated television shows have recently done exactly that: presented people for whom mental illness has been a triumph over adversity.

Though not everyone will be comfortable doing this, media lobbying and press liaison can be an important role for mental health professionals. Many patients may not be able to speak out for themselves, and it provides a means of improving public education and awareness.

I would like to make a suggestion to you: one in four people live with mental disorders. Can you, personally, think of ways in which you could work with the media to improve the life chances and possibilities for recovery for them?

Resource: has compiled a list of major media contacts just for this purpose.  Click here to be taken to the page.  Some e-mail addresses are on this page (some a little dated), but this provides you a chance to make a difference right now.

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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