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 illness.
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 Dr. Emma E. “Beth” McGinty, 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.