Fame no excuse for media to exploit mental illness

The ongoing controversy surrounding actress Amanda Bynes’ health exemplifies the misunderstanding and mishandling of mental illness by mainstream media. A string of her deleted tweets accusing her father of sexual abuse led to Bynes’ hospitalization last week. An existing tweet claiming that a “microchip” in her brain made her post the false tweets is being used as evidence for her mental instability.

Bynes’ odd behavior has been a source of entertainment for a few years now—so much so that she has essentially become her own meme. Not many Internet users seem to know or care that Bynes’ behavior is the result of mental illness. That she is acting out publicly as a result of her mental illness is a serious issue to be sympathized with, not laughed about.

The media has a history of exploiting mentally ill celebrities to gain readership and profit. In recent years, the struggles of actor Charlie Sheen and musician Demi Lovato—who respectively suffer from drug addiction and bipolar disorder—were obsessively reported and highly publicized. Celebrity status has become synonymous with a lack of privacy and a lack of dignity. Media outlets and consumers dehumanize celebrities when they exploit mental illness for gossip and entertainment.

If mental illness is not portrayed as entertaining or profitable, it is portrayed as dangerous. There is another trend in mass media to paint mental illness as violent and shameful, as in the case of mass shooters. The actions of the accused shooters at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Aurora, Colorado movie theater and the University of California, Santa Barbara over the past few years were infamously attributed to some degree of mental illness.

Whether or not the shooters were mentally ill is not the issue. Rather, the problem lies in the media’s message that mental illness should be feared and contained. The media marginalizes mentally ill people—their behaviors are either entertaining or violent. Even when mental health policies are introduced or improved after these incidents, it is more likely out of a fear of mentally ill people rather than a genuine desire to help.

The University of Washington’s research on the link between mental illness and violence found that the majority of mentally ill people are not violent, and that the media’s portrayal of mentally ill people contributes to discrimination of them.

The United States Department of Health reports that 6.7 percent of American adults have depression. If mental illness is so statistically common and significant, why do media outlets relay dangerously prejudicial media messages? Whether mental illness is “addressed” through celebrities’ private lives or the wellness of murders, it is not appropriately addressed and discussed in mainstream media. The stigma of mental illness does not only lead to discrimination, but possible abuse as well.

Instead of favoriting Bynes’ problematic tweets, the Twitter community should defend and support her. Moreover, when discussing mental illness and violence, we must remember that correlation does not imply causation.

It is not easy to improve media messages or change the way media affects audiences. But education and awareness of mental illnesses and the misconceptions surrounding them should improve our individual views on the prejudicial nature of mainstream media.