Our relationship with mass media is complex. We want to see our experience reflected and validated through broadcast, print, film, internet, and other mass communications. We want to trust that the media are engaging in safe messaging and being responsible in considering the composition of the audience. We are troubled when we perceive abuses of power produced and disseminated through mass media. Overall, we want to believe that, on balance, media is a positive influence on our lives.
What we read and hear from the media influences our perception and behavior. Adults face the challenge of sorting through varied sources and sometimes conflicting reports, using judgment to determine its validity, its relationship to previously-acquired knowledge, and its applicability to ourselves. But the barrage of implicit and explicit messages can be more difficult for – and detrimental to – teens, particularly as smartphones put the media at their literal fingertips.
Media messaging is pervasive, manifesting in obvious and subtle ways. Media influence can be overt (such as with direct advertising), making adolescents conscious of brands and images, or it can be indirect through underlying suggestions and connotations. Both forms of influence matter and are of special concern when the media cover mental health topics. Opportunities for delivering accurate portrayals and reducing social stigma about mental health conditions are wasted; instead, mental health conditions are often sensationalized, made villainous, and misrepresented, thereby increasing social stigma. Media is often not the friend of those living with mental health conditions and their families.
Here’s one example
In an analysis of news reports about individuals with mental illness from 2015 and 2016, 231 out of 301 reports used stigmatizing language.
Notable examples from the analysis include
- Using mental illness as the defining characteristic of an individual: “paranoid schizophrenic,” “alcoholic,” or “drug addict”
- Describing people with mental illness as helpless with little chance of recovery
- Using derogatory language: “crazy,” “insane,” “mental,” “crazed,” “deranged,” “nut”
- Implying that suicide is caused by a single event—such as having a relationship problem or losing a job—rather than because of mental illness
- Portraying violence as the norm for people with mental illness
- Describing individuals with mental illness as “not normal” and “not mentally there.” This implies that there is a fundamental difference between individuals without mental illness (“normal”) and individuals with mental illness (“not normal”).
Despite these negative examples, fortunately, the media can have positive effects as well. One of our most important – and challenging – responsibilities is to guide our youth in becoming educated consumers of media messages. But how can we separate the good from the bad?
Consider the recent controversy surrounding the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. The show follows Hannah Baker, a fictional high school student who takes her own life. The show illustrates the [purported] “reasons why” Hannah ended her life, primarily revolving around demoralizing circumstances brought on by peers at her school. Many have critiqued the show for not providing realistic depictions of mental health, poorly portraying suicide death, and discouraging youth from seeking help. However, the creators of the series believe the show is a platform to educate youth and open a conversation about mental health with caring adults.
In order to use this media broadcast for good, try watching the show with your child to prompt productive dialogue about mental health. [Be forewarned that there are graphic depictions of violence and suicide.] Here are some ideas.
- Before you watch, educate yourself about depression and suicide. Reading the Families for Depression Awareness Teen Depression Fact Sheet and watching the Teen Depression webinar are good places to start.
- Think about – and get comfortable with – the language that you can use to talk about mental health concerns. Does your family have experience with mental health issues? In what ways have they impacted your family relationships? Be ready to talk about specific situations.
- Familiarize yourself with local resources. Are there school professionals that can provide answers and support? Does your child’s PCP have handouts at the office or information online? What does your health insurer offer?
- And finally, ask your teen what they have heard about the show and whether they have any questions, fears, or concerns at the outset. Tell them that you and they are in this together and that, if any issues arise that need to be addressed, you are there to love and support them in being safe and well.
To be sure, not every parent or child is comfortable having such powerful conversations; in fact, few are at the beginning. We are all potentially susceptible to the messages that the media produces and to the reactions of people who buy into those messages. It’s important to help your child understand these messages and teach them ways to process them appropriately and in a healthy manner.
- Share our @Familyawareteens Instagram account with teens and young adults to support positive media outlets.
- Use social media tools to stay proactive in the conversations about mental health. You can follow @MentalHealthGov on Twitter and participate in the conversation using #MentalHealthMatters.
- Take advantage of additional online resources for mental health like various podcasts from Jumo Health that aid in stopping the stigma surrounding mental health by speaking to a high school teen who has had experiences with depression, anxiety, and a suicide attempt. There is also a downloadable depression discussion guide designed to help guide conversation with a doctor after a diagnosis.
If your teen is suicidal or in crisis, get them help immediately by taking them to the nearest hospital emergency department, preferably one that has a psychiatrist available. If you are unable to do that and are concerned about imminent harm, call your psychiatric emergency service if available or call 9-1-1.
If you are a teen and need crisis or emotional support, there are several national resources available.
- Text START to 741741 for the Crisis Text Line
- Call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- chat online at org
- Reach The Trevor Project for LGBTQ+ youth and young adults by