Television Viewing Habits and Their Relationship to Tolerance toward People with Mental Illness

Article excerpt

The electronic media has been criticized by mental health advocates as contributing to the stigma of mental illness. In this study, college-aged individuals who received their information about mental illness primarily from television were investigated to uncover the relationship of their television viewing habits and their tolerance toward mental illness. Results of trend analyses revealed that the number of hours of television watched per week was significantly and positively related to intolerance and that the type of television show watched accounted for significant variance in measures of tolerance toward people with mental illness. Implications are drawn for mental health counselors.

Mental health counselors have long been aware of the negative effects of social stigma on persons with mental illness. Corrigan (1998) traced the impact of stigma on mental illness and noted that while people with mental illness suffer from the harmful effects of the disease itself, "society's reaction to the disease seems to have an equally harmful impact on the person's abilities to successfully achieve life goals" (p. 202). He noted that negative stereotypes of people with mental illness lead to discrimination in housing, employment, and social interactions. In 1986, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reported that stigma was the most debilitating handicap faced by former mental patients. More recent reports confirm the ongoing negative effects of stigma on the quality of life for individuals with mental illnesses (BBC Online Network, 1999).

Beginning more than 2 decades ago, television was implicated in perpetuating the stigma attached with mental illness (U.S. President's Commission on Mental Health, 1978). Since that time, mental health advocates have asserted that the electronic media depicts mental illness in both an unfavorable and inaccurate manner that contributes to perpetuating harmful misconceptions about people with mental illness (Corrigan, 1998; Rose, 1998; Thornton & Wahl, 1996). These inaccurate depictions of mental illness are often the only opportunity that viewers have to form opinions about mental illness. A 1990 national survey on mental health attitudes found that the mass media was identified by an overwhelming majority of Americans as the primary source for information about mental illness (Daniel Yanklovich Group, 1990).

Empirical and anecdotal reports have indicated that television images of mental illness have been far from tolerant. Both the frequency of the depictions of people with mental illness and the inaccuracy of those portrayals have contributed to the stigma attached to mental illness (Wahl, 1992).

Several studies have investigated the frequency of the images of mental illness in the media. Fruth and Padderud (1985) found that of all the available programming time during a 2-week period of daytime television, 11.4% was devoted to portrayals or discussions of mental illness. Wahl and Roth (1982) found that 29% of prime time television shows over an entire month had some relevance to mental illness. In the 20 years between 1969 and 1989, mental illness was depicted in about one fifth (20.5%) of prime-time dramatic programs (Signorielli, 1989). Television depictions of individuals with mental illness remains a popular theme.

The assertion that the images portrayed are inaccurate also has been supported through research. Rose (1998) found that in a 3-month period in 1992, 65% of people with mental illness shown on the news were portrayed as having committed acts of violence against others. In daytime television, Fruth and Padderud (1985) found that characters with a mental illness differed from normal characters in appearance and behaviors, and one third of all the depictions of mental illness indicated that mental illness is a serious disease. In her 20-year study of television, Signorielli (1989) found that 72.1% of prime-time characters with a mental illness hurt or kill others. …