Wisdom//

Why We Need Role Models to Destigmatize Mental Illness

Seeing successful people open up about their struggles will show that mental illness is not a barrier to success.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Despite coming a long way from the days of the asylum, mental illness is still highly stigmatized. Unlike other illnesses like heart disease or hypertension, people with mental illness are often afraid to be open about their experiences because they do not want to be judged as incompetent or scary. And one of the reasons mental illness is still highly stigmatized is because of negative media portrayals of people who have various brain disorders, especially bipolar disorder, PTSD and schizophrenia.

Each season on any of the hospital or crime dramas, it is quite common to have a case of someone with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia creating havoc on the people around them. The focus is always on someone who ‘did not take their meds’. Only one month into 2019 and already I am watching Blue Bloods (CBS), Season 9 Episode 11: Disrupted (air date January 4, 2019) in which Erin, a female police officer, tries to protect one of the main characters’ family from a “dangerous psychiatric patient” (the latter is a quote from the episode description). On the Fox show, Star, Season 3 Episode 8 (air date November 28, 2018) the main character discovers that her boyfriend’s mother has bipolar disorder; an experience he describes as not knowing who would show up as his mom on any given day ie whether or not she would be manic or depressed. This description is a stereotype of what people think bipolar disorder looks like but it is rare that someone would be depressed one day and manic the next. As a fan of the Law and Order franchise, there are numerous episodes in which various cases include someone with uncontrolled mental illness – PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia – being the focus of intervention.

Add to this the news reports of mass shootings committed by people who are often posthumously diagnosed with a mental illness, and it is not hard to see why many people avoid getting treated or seeking support when they are struggling with their mental health. Not much unlike the main character of Homeland who had bipolar disorder and was hiding it from the CIA because she was afraid she would get fired.

Now I understand that the need for ‘drama’ means that writers are going to show the extremes for the benefit of the plot. However, it would help if the media showed more ‘success stories’ like Carrie of Homeland who manages a career as a CIA officer or like Andre from Empire who graduated from the elite Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and managed the finances of the family business. I previously wrote about how satisfying it was to see the way André’s bipolar disorder was a backstory in the beginning episodes of the show, and it was not a factor that his father considered in deciding who would be his successor (André’s lack of musical talent trumped his financial brilliance).

These two characters whose illnesses did prove challenging at times – it is dramatic TV of course – at least showed that people with a mental illness could be successful if symptoms were managed. And as more and more successful people ‘come out’ and own their mental health struggles, the image of the person whose mental illness got in the way of their optimal success, will give way to more stories of achievement and success with mental illness.

When I was first asked to publicly share my bipolar journey I was hesitant that my reputation as an academic would be at risk. Despite the highly regarded editor of the volume trying to persuade me that my story would be ‘inspirational’, the only reason I agreed was that my story would be published by the most prestigious academic press that every professor on the tenure track would want on their CV. I also gambled that it would mostly sit on library shelves and would not be read by too many people. But I was surprised by the letters I got from a wide range of people who wrote me sharing their own fears about career success with a mental illness; everyone from a med student at Harvard to a lawyer at a prestigious firm.

Media provides images of what people think the world is, or should be, even though we all know that outside of documentaries, TV shows and movies are mostly fiction, but yet they still shape what we think. The news premise that ‘If it bleeds it leads’ means that stories of mental illness will only lead when it is assumed to be the source of a bloody headline. The challenge for media’s role in de-stigmatizing mental illness, is to provide counter-narratives where people who are in high-powered jobs and influential positions open up about their mental illness, not to make it the main plot of their story, but as just another fact of their lives. Role models matter. And seeing successful people who manage their mental illness will show that mental illness is not a precursor to disaster nor a barrier to success.

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