The information below has been reproduced with the kind permission of SANE Australia.
What is stigma?
Stigma is due to misunderstanding as well as to prejudice.
There are many forms of stigma in society, some are based on negative attitudes or beliefs, others are due to a lack of understanding or misinformation. Stigma can lead to a lack of support or empathy for people with a mental illness, leaving people embarrassed, misunderstood, and marginalised. Stigma can cause more than hurt feelings. It can result in symptoms being ignored, lead to poor recovery and a lower quality of life due to isolation.
Sometimes mental illness is given a stigma that tries to label people affected as ‘scary’, ‘comical’ or ‘incompetent’. If you’re living with a mental illness, stigma is one more stress you don’t need. In fact, some people say that the effects of stigma and prejudice can be as distressing as the symptoms of their illness.
Is stigma unlawful?
It is unlawful to vilify people on the grounds of religion,race, sex or sexual preference in most parts of Australia. However, in most States and Territories, it remains lawful to vilify people with a disabilty, including those living with a mental illness. That’s why taking action to reduce stigma is so important.
When is it stigma?
Media reports are stigmatising if they represent mental illness in ways that are inaccurate or offensive.
A stigmatising report may encourage people to fear or be unsympathetic towards people with a mental illness, to mock or invite ridicule of them, or give inaccurate or misleading facts about mental illness.
Here are some of the ways the media does this:
Linking mental illness to crime and violence
We’ve all seen the ‘police hunt schizophrenic killer’ headlines, or references to someone ‘escaping’ or ‘being released’ from hospital. These terms equate people who have mental illness with criminals escaping or released from prison. The accurate term for anyone leaving hospital is ‘discharged’.
Sensationalised reporting of violent acts by people with mental illness often fails to provide information as to why someone was acting aggressively. The person may not have been receiving effective treatment, for example. Repeat coverage gives the impression that these events are common, and that everyone affected by mental illness is aggressive. A 2013 University of Melbourne study found 47 per cent of Australian media articles regarding schizophrenia linked the illness to violence.
In fact, research shows that:
- People with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.
- Most people receiving treatment for mental illness are no more violent that the general population.
- Most people who commit violent acts do not have a mental illness.Violent acts by people with a mental illness are usually associated with a minority who are not receiving effective treatment, who have a history of violence or abuse alcohol and other drugs.
- By associating mental illness with violence and crime, the media promote the myth that all people with a mental illness are dangerous and to be avoided.
'On a TV drama last night, a character with bipolar disorder was shown deliberately running someone over with a car. That sort of negative portrayal makes it hard for me to tell people that I have bipolar, and I have to explain that I’m not a ‘dangerous’ person.'
Mockery and vilification
Most people who make fun of mental illness do so thoughtlessly, not realising the hurt they cause. Whether done intentionally or not, this can cause harm in a number of ways – making people affected and their families feel mocked and excluded by society, perpetuating community misunderstanding, and discouraging people from seeking treatment.
Media articles about mental illness sometimes describe people using terms such as ‘psycho’ – especially in headlines – sensationalising the story. Advertising campaigns sometimes use characters in straitjackets to promote ‘crazy low prices’ or make fun of bizarre behaviour – for example, ‘You’ll go psycho when you taste our pizza’.
TV dramas have depicted people with a mental illness as comical or violent. While producers and scriptwriters may claim ‘artistic licence’, drama still plays a major role in representing mental illness and perpetuating stigma.
Labelling people by their illness
If a person is described as ‘a schizophrenic’ or ‘depressive’, rather than someone being treated for schizophrenia or depression, it labels them by their illness and gives the impression tht this defines their life. This use of labels is often upsetting as it classifies someone by their symptoms. A person may feel the label ties them to a negative stereotype that ignores their personal strengths.
Misusing medical terms
Media articles sometimes include statements such as ‘the Minister’s attitude to this policy is totally schizophrenic – some days he’s for it, other days he won’t have a barof it.’ This promotes the stereotype that schizophrenia includes ‘split personality’, when in reality it is a medical condition that affects the functioning of the brain and a person’s ability to manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
It is incorrect to casually describe behaviour as ‘bipolar’ or ‘obsessive compulsive,’ for example. Misusing medical terminology is not only inaccurate it is also misleading. This can result in community misunderstanding of mental illness symptoms, or cause a person to experience ‘self-stigma’. Self-stigma can affect self-esteem and confidence, or make people reluctant to accept diagnosis or treatment.
StigmaWatch and MindframeStigmaWatch is a SANE Australia program which represents people affected by mental illness, campaigning for improved understanding, fair representation,and stigma reduction in the media. It is supported by Mindframe, the Australian Government’s National Media Initiative to promote accurate and responsible representation of mental illness and suicide in the media. Mindframe has also developed resources for media professionals, journalism students, scriptwriters, police and courts, and conduct briefing sessions with media organisations to discuss issues relating to mental illness and suicide.You can find out more about stigma, and what you can do to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, by following these links:
Sane Australia (2015) Reducing Stigma Available from: (accessed on 23/11/2015)
Hunter Institute of Mental Health (2014) Mindframe Available from: (accessed on 23/11/2015)