Mental Illness in the Media

Heath Ledger’s posthumous appearance as the Joker in the Batman movie “The Dark Knight” this month seems likely to rekindle media speculation that his tragic death in January was a drug-induced suicide.

That’s unfortunate because there is, after all, no conclusive evidence for conjecture that the talented Aussie actor was so mentally depressed that he deliberately ended his life with a drug overdose.

In fact, speculation and gossip linking his death to alleged substance abuse does a disservice to him, his family and his friends. By all accounts, Ledger was a hard-working and respected actor, who — quite tragically — has been taken from us in his prime.

As his final performance draws wide acclaim from delighted audiences, it is important that journalists take care to accurately report about his life and untimely death. Exploitation of his death will only perpetuate existing stigmas about mental health illness, a disease that strikes about one in four Americans in varying forms each year.

The taboo associated with mental illness is deep-rooted and longstanding. For centuries, mental disorders were viewed as a disgrace to be kept quiet and swept under the rug. Patients were separated, locked behind closed doors or put on freakish display to satisfy society’s mass fascination with schadenfreude gone morbid.

Even today, for too many people the term “mental disorder” conjures up fiendish images. The media can — and should — be an unrelenting force combating such stigmas and encouraging people to seek treatment for mental illness.

What many people fail to realize is that mental illness is widespread — leaving no community untouched. Each year, nearly 60 million American adults experience some type of mental health disorder. These disorders can be life threatening — while suicide is a relatively rare occurrence, it is the leading cause of violent deaths worldwide.

A vast majority of people who die by their own hand suffer from a mental illness — often undiagnosed and untreated despite the availability of a growing number of effective treatment options. Annually, less than one-third of adults and one-half of all children with diagnosable mental disorders receive any mental health services.

Reasons for not seeking treatment vary widely. Some people may not recognize or correctly identify the symptoms of mental illness — symptoms often missed by their families and friends as well. Others simply may be reluctant to seek care because of the illnesses’ perceived stigma.

Ongoing education and disease awareness initiatives that emphasize our expanding abilities to treat mental disorders — not sensationalism — are our best hope for permanently erasing the stigma surrounding these illnesses.

Research already shows that the most effective way to reduce stigma is through personal contact with someone with a mental illness. Developing a personal understanding of the science and the facts will make Americans less likely to stigmatize mental illnesses and more likely to seek or encourage treatment.

A targeted public awareness campaign — funded at the level of recent, successful anti-smoking campaigns — will make great strides in educating the public that mental illnesses are biological disorders that can be reliably diagnosed and effectively treated. We have yet to fully carve out a place for mental health within our healthcare system that comes close to the attention we devote to physical illnesses.

Accurate depictions of mental illness in the media and in entertainment can help move us forward. The media and entertainment industries have tackled enormous issues over the years — helping the world gain a better understanding of such complex health concerns as HIV/AIDS, substance abuse and hunger.

The challenge now is to ensure that mental illness receives the same kind of enlightened treatment across the board.

Achieving that will go a long way toward finally stomping out the unfair stigmas that prevent so many Americans from recovering and leading happy, productive lives.

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