Experts and social scientists have been interested in the possible impact of mass media images on the public and have given considerable attention to false stereotypes of women, minorities, and the elderly (National Institute of Mental Health, 1982). Nunnally (1961) conducted one of the earliest investigations on the impact of social media, and very interestingly discovered that mental health representation of media was highly flawed, and it did not align with the views and ideas of mental health held either by the public or the mental health experts. The views of mental health held by the public were somewhere in between of the media and mental health experts, but much closer to what the media had to say (Scheff, 1963). Nunnally’s findings showed that, the population was strongly influenced by what the media had to say and show about mental health as compared to the mental health professionals. When people have not had any real life or lived experience with people suffering from mental illness, they usually depend on media or other external source to form or shape their views or ideas about mental illness overall (Link et al., 1986).
Media Coverage of a Celebrity Suicide
If one has followed the prime time news from June to September (2020) diligently then they would note that very few news channels actually had mental health or medical experts as panelist sharing ‘factual’ information. The rest or the most of what we saw was a random line up of individuals who came and sensationalized, politicized and further stigmatized the issue of ‘Mental illnesses’.
It has not been very long since the death of a celebrity by suicide took place and the mockery that followed right after (June, 2020). The country witnessed an unethical, flawed and disturbing coverage of the suicide case. The news channels (most of them) in order to increase their TRPs (Television rating points) did nothing but sensationalize and misinformed their views about the case. One could see people, with little to no background or qualification in psychology, psychiatry or the related fields, (mis)speaking at length about mental health/mental illness at the prime time news. Influential actors from Bollywood have gone ahead to say, “he looked so happy, he cannot be depressed” and even further stating that, “he exercised regularly and was an ambitious man, he can never kill himself”. The list of statements by (some) powerful people at Bollywood reek of their ignorance and utter stupidity to confidently speak on a topic they clearly know nothing about.
The media lynching of a woman that we have all witnessed and the unnecessary charges, allegations and statements being made in and around the topic of mental health just shows that India has not progressed but actually regressed in the area of mental health discussion. There is a huge role of media in showcasing mental illness in the wrong light. Individuals with mental illnesses are described and shown in exaggerated, inaccurate, and comical images (Wahl, 1995). It is important to understand that mass communication theories, cultivation theory, and social learning theory work in tandem to influence the construction and perpetuation of mental illness stigma.
The Way Forward
It is important to make a genuine effort to work on strategies to reduce mass media stigmatization. Research has suggested that efforts to reduce the stigmatizing effects of media portrayals by providing compensatory information are, by themselves, not likely to be successful. Instead, efforts must include actual reduction of negative portrayals that influence public conceptions. The increasing use of media watches by mental health consumer organizations, through which potentially stigmatizing portrayals are identified and responses to producers and editors rapidly organized, may be an appropriate means of influencing media portrayals. Such consumer responses help to educate media personnel and sensitize them to the issues of stigmatization as well as to create external pressure for change. Even more helpful might be to provide, or at least encourage, entertainment presentations that forward, in an equally emotion-arousing way, a more understanding view of mental illness. The increasing use of mental health professionals as consultants to communications media would be very important.