Mental Illness and Violence: Media Reporting and its Consequences

I recently read Angermeyer and Schulze’s[1] paper, Reinforcing stereotypes: How the focus on forensic cases in news reporting may influence public attitudes towards the mentally ill. It’s a fascinating, if troubling, investigation into how crime reporting can lead people to hold stigmatising attitudes towards individuals with mental illness.

What struck me the most when reading this paper was the research that they drew on during their literature review. While I’m aware from various news reports[2] that public attitudes are not wholly positive towards individuals with mental illnesses, I wasn’t quite aware just how severe these opinions were. For instance, Angermeyer and Schulze[1] write that:

  • Public attitudes towards people with mental illnesses are dominated by the belief that individuals with these conditions are violent and dangerous.
  • A survey in Germany by Angermeyer and Matschinger discovered that the central stereotype for the mentally ill was that they were dangerous. Participants in the study even stated that individuals with mental illnesses commit violent crimes on a more frequent basis than members of the general public.
  • A survey by Angermeyer uncovered the popular belief that individuals with mental illnesses were more likely to commit rape or arson. Respondents to this survey also expressed the view that a murder was more likely to be committed by someone with a mental illness than someone without one.

What is so troubling about these findings is how incongruous the beliefs expressed above are to reality. In fact, a report by the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide[3] found that, across a ten-year period, only 59 individuals with mental illnesses were convicted of homicide across England and Wales – a far cry from the proportion felt to be committed by Angermeyer and Matschinger, and Angermeyer’s participants.

Regardless of how incongruous these beliefs are, they still exist and it can be argued that they stem from media reporting. Regular reports on crimes involving an individual with a mental illness can make the connection between violence and mental illness cognitively available to media audiences, making them easier to believe and, therefore, reinforce.

However, it is important to recognise that these reports typically tend to simplify the reasons behind the violent crime, so that it is solely attributed to the mental illness itself[4]. Contextual factors, such as social and cultural contributors that could have provoked the event, are often overlooked for a solitary cause: mental illness.

In fact, there are a wealth of reasons why someone may engage in a violent crime, such as:

  • Being exposed to violence or abuse at an early age.
  • Having unstable relationships.
  • Experiencing employment problems.
  • Struggling with substance misuse.
  • Having been violent previously[3].

Focusing solely on an individual’s mental illness when reporting on a violent crime, therefore, misrepresents the backstory to the event and the person involved in it.

This reporting trend is problematic as the link between mental illness and violence serves to propagate the stigma and discrimination experienced by individuals diagnosed with these conditions. Throughout her research, Stuart[4] has found that connections between individuals with mental illnesses and violence in the media mean that people are more likely to condone forced legal action and coerced treatment for individuals with mental illnesses.

Even more problematic is that the presumption of violence in individuals with mental illnesses can lead to others justifying bullying and victimisation of the mentally ill to the extent that 8.2% of individuals with a mental illness reported experiencing criminal victimisation compared to 3.1% of the general population[4].

So, why does this happen? Angermeyer and Schulze[1] explain that people’s understanding of the world rarely takes place through personal experience anymore. Instead, people’s understanding of the world around them occurs indirectly through media consumption. This finding is especially apparent when dealing with mental illness as few people have first-hand experience with an individual with a mental illness. Instead, the general public’s understanding of these individuals is often shaped by the information and images on the TV, in films and in the press. When we consider the vicarious movie depictions of “crazed killers” and the proportion of news reports associating mental illness with violence, it becomes clear how these public misconceptions can be fuelled.

References
1 Angermeyer, M. C. and Schulze, B. (2001) “Reinforcing stereotypes: How the focus on forensic cases in news reporting may influence public attitudes towards the mentally ill”. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. 24, pp. 469-486.
2 Fenton, S. “Majority of Britons ‘uncomfortable’ letting someone with mental illness look after their child, study finds”. The Independent. 4th August 2016. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/mental-health-problems-illness-british-social-attitudes-survey-britons-children-marriage-stigma-a7170281.html
3 Mind (n.d.) ‘Violence and Mental Health’ [Online source] Available at: <http://www.mind.org.uk/media/998781/Violence-and-mental-health-Mind-factsheet-2014.pdf&gt; Accessed 27.12.2014.
4 Stuart, H. (2006) ‘Media Portrayal of Mental Illness and its Treatments: What Effect Does It Have on People with Mental Illness?’ CNS Drugs. 20(2), pp. 99-106.

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