The number one fight we seem to face as advocates is the perception of
people with mental illness being more violent than the general population.
This Study from John Hopkins amplifies our fear about how the media has
frequently portrayed individuals with mental illness as violent. The most
difficult to comprehend part of the research is that despite all the great
work that has been done over the last decade in breaking down stereotypes,
perceptions of linking violence and mental illness only seems to be getting

One way we hope to turn the tide is by working to educate our youth about
mental health in schools. We hope that by next week, we will have a mental
health in schools bill passed in New York State.

Thanks to our friends at NYAPRS for originally running this article

Study: News Stories Often Link Violence With Mental Health Illness, Even
Though People With Mental Health Illness Are Rarely Violent

Research Finds Little Has Changed In Media Portrayal Of Mental Illness
Over 20-Year Period

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health June 6, 2016

Nearly four in 10 news stories about mental illness analyzed by Johns
Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers connect mental
illness with violent behavior toward others, even though less than five
percent of violence in the United States is directly related to mental

The findings, published in the June issue of Health Affairs, suggest that
this routine linkage of mental illness with violence toward others paints
an unfair portrait of those with mental illness, suggesting that most are
prone to violence when numerous studies have concluded that only a small
percentage actually commit violence. The researchers, who examined a sample
of stories published in top-tier media outlets over a 20-year period, say
they were surprised that there was little change in how the media portrayed
people with mental illness. If anything, they say, the portrayals may have
increased the stigma toward people with mental illness. Just one percent of
newspaper stories linking violence with mental illness appearing on the
front page in the first decade of the study period (1994 to 2005) compared
with 18 percent in the second decade (2005 to 2014).

“Most people with mental illness are not violent toward others and most
violence is not caused by mental illness, but you would never know that by
looking at media coverage of incidents,” says study leader Emma E. “Beth”
McGinty, PhD, MS, an assistant professor in the departments of Health
Policy and Management and Mental Health at the Bloomberg School. “Despite
all of the work that has been done to reduce stigma associated with mental
health issues, this portrayal of mental illness as closely linked with
violence exacerbates a false perception about people with these illnesses,
many of whom live healthy, productive lives.

“In an ideal world, reporting would make clear the low percentage of people
with mental illness who commit violence.”

In any given year, 20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from mental
illness and, over a lifetime, roughly 50 percent receive a diagnosis.

For their study, the researchers analyzed a random sample of 400 news
stories about mental illness over a 20-year period that appeared in 11
high-circulation, high-viewership media outlets in the United States. The
most frequently mentioned topic across the study period was violence (55
percent), with 38 percent mentioning violence against others and 29 percent
linking mental illness with suicide. Treatment is mentioned in 47 percent
of stories but just 14 percent described successful treatment for or
recovery from mental illness.

“Stories about successful treatment have the potential to decrease stigma
and provide a counter image to depictions of violence, but there are not
that many of these types of narratives depicted in the news media,” McGinty

A deeper dive into the media coverage found that depictions of mass
shootings by individuals with mental illness increased over the course of
the study period, from nine percent of all news stories in the first decade
to 22 percent in the second decade. The number of mass shootings, according
to FBI statistics, has remained steady over the time period. Among the
stories that mentioned violence toward others, 38 percent mentioned that
mental illness can increase the risk of such violence while eight percent
mentioned that most people with mental illness are never or rarely violent
toward others.

Schizophrenia was the specific diagnosis most frequently mentioned as
related to violence (17 percent) and the two most frequently mentioned risk
factors for violence other than mental illness were drug use (five percent)
and stressful life events (five percent).

One limitation of the study is that it did not include stories from local
television news, where large segments of Americans get their news.

McGinty says the negative stories add to the perception that people with
mental illness are dangerous, a stigmatizing portrayal that prior studies
have shown leads to a desire for social distance from people with mental
illness: people who say they wouldn’t want to work with someone with mental
illness or wouldn’t want someone with mental illness to marry into their
families. Such stigma can lead to a reluctance among people with symptoms
to seek treatment, problems staying in treatment and discrimination
regarding housing and employment.

She concedes, however, that it may be difficult for members of the news
media not to assume mental illness is in play because of the idea among
many that anyone who would commit violence, especially mass shootings, must
have mental illness.

“Anyone who kills people is not mentally healthy. We can all agree on
that,” McGinty says. “But it’s not necessarily true that they have a
diagnosable illness. They may have anger or emotional issues, which can be
clinically separate from a diagnosis of mental illness. Violence may stem
from alcohol or drug use, issues related to poverty or childhood abuse. But
these elements are rarely discussed. And as a result, coverage is skewed
toward assuming mental illness first.”

“Trends in News Media Coverage of Mental Illness in the United States:
1995—2014” was written by Emma E. “Beth” McGinty, Alene Kennedy-Hendricks,
Seema Choksy and Colleen Barry.

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