The word stigma arrives from the Greeks via the Romans, where it referred to a “mark of a pointed instrument, puncture, tattoo-mark, or brand.” In these ancient and intertwined civilizations, slaves and criminals were stigmatized in order to make visible their moral “pollution” and social disgrace. As used in contemporary English, stigma commonly refers to unseen marks of disgrace, a topic recently explored by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers.

Their new study indicates that nearly four in 10 analyzed news stories focusing on mental disorders connect psychiatric illness with violence toward others. However, public health officials estimate only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to people with a serious mental illness.

“The news media’s continued emphasis on interpersonal violence is highly disproportionate to actual rates of violence,” wrote the researchers, who were led by Dr. Beth McGinty.

In a study that assessed media trends over a 20-year period ending in 2014, McGinty and her colleagues examined a random sample of 400 stories about mental illness published in top-tier outlets: 11 high-circulation, high-viewership media titles in the United States.

Across the entire study period, the most frequently mentioned topic was violence (55 percent overall) divided into categories of interpersonal violence or self-directed (suicide) violence, followed by stories about any type of treatment for mental illness (47 percent). Only 14 percent of news stories described successful treatment for or recovery from mental illness.

Just one percent of the articles appearing on the front page in the first decade of the study linked violence with mental illness compared with 18 percent in the second decade, McGinty and her colleagues discovered. Examining this coverage more closely, the research team found people with mental illness were more likely to be mentioned within stories about mass shootings. The number of stories increased from just 9 percent of all analyzed articles during the first decade to 22 percent during the second. Meanwhile, FBI statistics suggest the number of mass shootings has remained steady over the 20-year period.

Among the news stories focused on violence toward others, 38 percent mentioned that mental illness can increase the risk of such violence while 8 percent noted that most people with mental illness are never or rarely violent toward others, observed McGinty and her colleagues. Overall, schizophrenia was the diagnosis most frequently mentioned (17 percent of stories) in relation to violence, while the two most frequently noted additional risk factors for violence were drug use (5 percent) and stressful life events (5 percent).

“Research suggests that this focus may exacerbate social stigma and decrease support for public policies that benefit people with mental illnesses,” concluded McGinty and her co-authors, who noted a major limitation of their study is it did not include stories from local TV news.

Government statistics indicate that, in 2014, one in five adults experienced a mental health issue, while one in 25 lived with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. To stigmatize the mentally disordered would translate to many wearing a mark of shame.

Source: McGinty EE, Kennedy-Hendricks A, Choksy S, Barry CL. Trends In News Media Coverage Of Mental Illness In The United States: 1995–2014. Health Affairs. 2016.