The portrayal of mental illness in pop culture is often volatile, stigmatized and inaccurate, says Dr. Vasilis Pozios, M.D., an Ann Arbor-based psychiatrist and frequent Comic Con panelist where he often speaks on mental health representation in the media.
“People with mental illness — it’s not their entire existence. It doesn’t define them and with treatment they can get better.” — Dr. Vasilis Pozios, M.D.
“In comics, video games, television, mental health has always been portrayed as a cause for violence and other criminal behavior,” Pozios says. “You start to rely on those images you’ve seen on the screen [and] it really hit home that these portrayals are informing the general public’s beliefs about people with mental illnesses as being apparently violent and dangerous. And that’s just not true.”
Listen: How Mental Illness and Media Intersect
Pozios is the co-founder of Broadcast Thought, which wants to shift the narrative that equates mental illness to villainous behavior and encourage the media to embrace new dimensional and accurate portrayals of mental illness, perceptions and treatment.
“This can be a win-win situation in terms of improving accuracy and limiting stigma, but also creating more interesting and compelling stories and characters,” says Pozios.
While there are myriad of examples that offer a one-sided narrative of mental illness and its behavioral effects, Pozios says that the quality and quantity of representation has increased over the years.
He notes shows like Mindy Kaling’s Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” which chronicles the coming-of-age story of a first-generation Indian-American teenager who regularly sees a therapist.
“This show does a fantastic job at normalizing mental health treatment and portraying conversion disorder [the result of a traumatic experience],” he says. “This sends the message that these things happen to people and it’s not unusual. People experience anxiety and they seek mental health treatment – and it works. People with mental illness, it’s not their entire existence. It doesn’t define them and with treatment they can get better. That’s the message we want to get out there.”