Fighting Stigma: Why the Depiction of Illness Matters

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The media collectively wields an important power to impact public perception of illnesses like HIV / AIDS and depression. According to an American Trends Panel, 61% of Millennials use Facebook as their primary news source. Social media expands the reach of lifesaving information and support by connecting people with people. Conversely, a lack of understanding can spread misinformation and fear of underserved and vulnerable communities. This is exacerbated by the confusion among the general public about the difference between HIV and AIDS.

During the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s, high profile figures like Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson brought public social awareness of HIV and AIDS. Magic Johnson demonstrated that AIDS was not a disease limited to a single demographic, and sparked a national conversation as a result.

Former President Bill Clinton once said, “We live in a completely interdependent world, which simply means we can not escape each other. How we respond to AIDS depends, in part, on whether we understand this interdependence. It is not someone else's problem. This is everybody's problem.”

In a not so distant past, HIV / AIDS was still viewed as a death sentence. Sufferers were misunderstood and ostracized. This type of media-driven stigma is damaging and it still hasn’t ended completely. We’ve learned a lot about this illness in the past 30 years and HIV infection rates are declining. If that trend is going to continue, we need to remember that reinforcing stigmas negatively impacts vulnerable individuals by discouraging them from seeking help or treatment. Films like Rent offer a glimpse of the humanity behind the illness.

Mental illness is subject to stigma as well. It’s not uncommon to see tropes like the “shell-shocked veteran,” based upon the real world struggles of post-traumatic stress disorder. This trope is over-exaggerated and diminishes the impact it has on sufferers in the process. There’s another damaging misrepresentation that depression sufferers are making things up, are just plain sad, or that they can miraculously recover if only they’d just smile.

It’s common to see horror movie villains in television and film portrayed as a mentally disturbed maniacs whose fluctuating moods cause them to commit unspeakable horrors. Similarly, perpetrators of mass shootings and violence are quickly assigned the narrative of suffering from mental illness. Despite these high-profile crimes, studies indicate that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violence than to be violent themselves. Sufferers of mental illness are 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.

Stigmas are hurtful and damaging, but we can move past them. Educating the general public is the only way to get to a place of understanding without judgment. The most important thing that I’ve learned is that we need to have more empathy for other people. We all suffer from vastly limited perspectives. Having empathy and asking the important questions is the only way to widen our view and see each other for the authentic people we are.

Representing illness with humanity and honesty is important because depictions directly impact the perception of people suffering from these illnesses. Jarune Uwujaren highlights this in her article “Mental Illness: How the Media Contributes To Its Stigma” for Everyday Feminism.

Jarune writes, “Television shows depict being the victim of violence as more desirable than being mentally ill. Because the media is meant to entertain, depictions of the mentally ill are sensationalized.”

She goes on to describe the myths surrounding mental illnesses and how they are sometimes simultaneously depicted as violent, insane, beyond help, or somehow creative geniuses. Ultimately these are all exploitive, because they contort the human element to serve the ulterior motive of entertainment. A notable example is the film Sucker Punch, where the cast is primarily comprised of women locked inside a mental health institution that fantasize about violently killing their abusive captors.

The truth about mental illness is far different from these sensationalized depictions. Mentally ill people aren’t all broken shells, nor are they violent psychopaths ripe for entertaining tropes. Similarly, men and women suffering from HIV and AIDS aren’t the druggies and deviants they’re often made out to be. People are people, and it’s easy to forget that.

350 million individuals of all ages suffer from depression globally - it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide. 38.7 million people are living with HIV worldwide. Chances are likely that you personally know multiple individuals who suffer from one of these or other illnesses. Imagine that your friend or family member is among them. How would you want them to be treated?