A Breed Apart
People who are perceived as "different" are often the target of disrespectful humor. So it should be no surprise that people with mental illnesses, who are frequently the subject of such humor, also tend to be viewed and portrayed as fundamentally different from others. I am not talking here simply about portrayals of the symptoms that distinguish those with mental illnesses. Such individuals do, of course, differ from others in many of the behaviors they display: they exhibit the distinct, often dramatic symptoms of their disorders. I am referring here to depictions of mental illness that suggest much more fundamental differences from others--differences in physical appearance, in background and character, even in basic humanity.
In the late 1950s, Jum Nunnally conducted an extensive rating of mass media presentations of mental illness. Trained raters sampled newspapers, magazines, television, and films and made judgments about the way mental illness was depicted. Nunnally also asked mental health professionals what they felt should be conveyed about mental illness and compared their recommendations with ratings of actual media depiction. In general, media portrayals deviated greatly from what mental health professionals felt should be communicated about psychiatric disorders. In particular, Nunnally noted a large discrepancy on a factor that he labeled "look and act different." Psychiatric experts felt fairly strongly that mental illness is only part of an individual's total functioning and that it is difficult to single out a person with mental illness from others. The mass media, however, seemed to suggest that