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Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness

By Otto F. Wahl, Ph.D.

Reviewed by William Zaccagnino, Rupert B. Hurley, and Jim Howe for the NAMI Literature Committee

Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness is an outstanding book. While the subject of the treatment in the media of those with brain disorders may at first seem to beg the question of "Isn't this just another case of political correctness?" the rampant inaccuracies about mental illnesses in newspapers, magazines, movies, and books makes it clear that this is not merely stereotyping, but rather a pervasive ignorance.

Dr. Wahl's book goes far to explain where the errors are and to educate and sensitize the reader to the frequent inaccuracies. In addition, this book is very readable. It is well researched and it isn't patronizing or accusatory toward those who write the newspaper stories and novels, script the movies, draw the cartoons, or create the advertisements that are built on the inaccuracies that so frequently are the public's body of knowledge about mental illness. It's possible some readers might feel the author is too kind, considering the number of inaccuracies in the media.

Dr. Wahl gives his readers many mainstream references in his text and illustrations: The Far Side, Kudzu, Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, Friday the 13th (and its many iterations), Rozanne, M*A*S*H, and many more that indicate the common belief that mental illnesses are fair game for humor, an excuse for murderous behavior, and an explanation for diminished intelligence. The danger in all of this, of course, is that the media provides the base of knowledge for children and reinforces the beliefs of others who have long been exposed to such erroneous references. Of equal or even greater danger is the plethora of inaccuracies present in the print and electronic news media. Here the reader/viewer expects that the information is not altered as a means of entertainment, but reported objectively. If the information reconfirms established beliefs, unfortunately the reader/viewer easily assumes that these inaccuracies are facts.

Dr. Wahl shows that those with mental illnesses are frequently presented as their illness: they are schizophrenics, manic depressives, or multiple personalities rather than persons with an illness or disorder. Wahl points out that similar characterization is not applied to those with cancer, diabetes, and other physical illnesses. And any psychiatric treatment in a person's past is deemed relevant to any story, regardless of whether or not it is relevant to the point of the story--especially when violence is involved.

In addition to the excellent text and illustrations, Dr. Wahl includes extensive notes representing his thorough research. He has included three appendices listing movies, television shows, and books that have mental illness or psychiatric references, many of which are inaccurate and disparaging.

Media Madness is recommended highly. It can easily serve as one of the references for NAMI's current anti-stigmatism campaign. And it is "must reading" for every journalism student, active journalist, writer, screenwriter, marketing student, and ad copy writer and artist. Consumers, family members, and other interested parties would also learn much from reading the book.

And Media Madness is also a call to action. Wahl assures his readers that one voice, one letter, one call can actually make the media change its path. He maintains that most media people don't intend to offend or mislead their audience and that helpful, correcting information in many cases will be welcomed.

Media Madness_Public Images of Mental Illness by Otto F. Wahl, Ph.D. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995. 237 pages.