Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness

By Otto F. Wahl | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
Words and Laughter

Words have power. They have the power to hurt or soothe, to honor or insult, to inform or misinform. Words reflect and shape prevailing attitudes, attitudes that in turn shape social behavior. Words both mirror and influence the ways we treat people and the ways they view themselves. And words--disparaging and disrespectful labels in particular--inflict emotional pain on those to whom they are applied. The words used by mass media to refer to mental illnesses and to the people who suffer from mental illnesses have such power, making it important to consider those words and the ways they are typically used--and misused.

A common complaint of mental health advocates about mass media is that psychiatric labels are often used incorrectly and serve to misinform and confuse viewers and readers. One of the most widely misused and misunderstood psychiatric terms is "schizophrenia." Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder suffered by over two million people in the United States. It is characterized by dramatic disturbances in thought, perception, and emotion. Symptoms include delusions (false but seemingly unshakable beliefs), hallucinations (for example, hearing voices), and disorganized thinking and speech. The symptoms are typically overwhelming to the person with schizophrenia and produce significant impairment in social, occupational, and recreational functioning to a point where hospital care is often needed. Schizophrenia is the most common diagnosis among those hospitalized in psychiatric facilities

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