What is Mental Illness (Visual and Verbal) Representation? Inaccurate depictions and stigmatism in culture.

In 2005, the Vermont Bear Company launched the “Crazy for you” bear soft toys. According to Eisenhauer (2008), the bear wore a white straightjacket and a tag was attached to it stating “Commitment Report”came with the bear. is tag stated, “Can’t Eat, Can’t Sleep, My Heart’s Racing, Diagnosis: Crazy for You!”  It turned out that due to it’s controversy, Mental Health Advocacy groups reacted negatively and pushed the company to pull off the production of the bears from the market. The reason why the reacted negatively was because the claimed that the bears could stigmatising people who suffer from mental illness.

Einsehauer stated that the bear could stigmatising people due to a phenomenon that she calls “visual culture stigma”. This is where Eisenhauer’s research becomes very important and enlightening to me as she investigates the visualisation of mental illness by raising some very interesting questions: “What contributes to the desire to visualise mental illness? What have been the outcomes of such depictions? What does stigmatisation mean and what are its e ects? And what role can art education play in challenging such stigmatisation?”

Wahl and Lefkowits (1989; Wahl, 1982, 1995, 2003) exposed the negative effects of represantating and visualising mental illness especially on those who suffer by it. Eisenhauer (2008) stated that “Visual culture is saturated with negative and inaccurate representations of people who have mental illnesses, and these portrayals significantly contribute to the detrimental aspects of stigmatisation.”

What is more, mental illness with beast-like elements are shown in  Goya’s Casa de Locos (1812-13) and Sir Charles Bell’s Madman. To explain better, women who suffered a femininity lost are visually represented as possessed and witches. According to Gilman (1982) the women who suffered from similar mental illness are presented as violators of nature.

So, what really fed the desire to people in early years to start visualising mental illness ? According to Eisenhauer, it was the fear of not being able to identify a person with mental illness particularly in the medical field. In the 18th century medical illustrators were used as a diagnostic tool to identify and control mental illness. Also, Eisenhauer mentioned that Lavater promoted physiognomy which proposed that facial characteristic and specific body elements would help to identify a person with mental illness.

So, what’s the real reason behind people trying to depict mental illness through visualisation? Gilman (1976) suggested that there is a need from society to identify “insane” visually in order to create a “border” between “them” (sane) and the “others” (insane). Eventually, is more about the image of “insane” than knowing about the actual mental illness itself.

What about the representation of mental illness in Children’s media ? Wilson (1999) completed a week’s examination in children’s TV shows and found out that “46.1% of the week’s episodes contained one or more references to mental illness. e majority of these references were in cartoons (79.7%).” The references of mental illness were both visual and verbal. Words like “deranged, disturbed, wacko, cuckoo, loony, lunatic” were documented in the examination. The visual references found were “unruly hair, widely spaced and/or rotting teeth, a prominent nose, heavy brows with thick arched brows (for villains), narrowed artificial eyes (for villains) and large round eyes (for comedic characters)”

Examinations by Wahl in 2003 in G and PG-rated films have shown that one in four of the examined films contained characters with mental illness and two thirds of the film contained references to mental illness. In a parallel research results have shown that characters are displayed violent, scary and angry suggesting that the representations reinforced the idea of people with mental illness are less likely to be of a decent nature to worthy to be trust.

An examination of representations of mental illness in Disney films was completed by Lawson and Fouts (2004) and fount out that 85% of Disney films contained references to mental illness. In addition to that, according to Brode (2005), Bryne & McQuillan (1999), Giroux (2004) and Tavin & Anderson (2003) in Disney there was also a problematic representation of gender, class, race etc. However, according to Eisenhauer the critiquing of the representation of mental illness is absent compared to the critiquing done for the representations of class, gender, race etc. Therefore, the lack of attention to examine representations of mental illness is more troubling than the actual impact of negative and inaccurate representations of mental illness.


Jennifer Eisenhauer (2008) A Visual Culture of Stigma: Critically Examining Representations of Mental Illness, Art Education, 61:5, 13-18. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00043125.2008.11518991.

Wahl, O. F. (2003). News media portrayal of mental illness. American Behavioral Scientist, 46(12), 1594-1600.

Wahl, O. F. (1995). Media madness, public images of mental illness. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Wahl, O. F. (1992). Mass-media images of mental illness—A review of the literature. Journal of Community Psychology, 20(4), 343-352.

Wahl, O. F. (1982). Television images of mental illness: Results of a metropolitan Washington media watch. Journal of Broadcasting, 26(2), 599-605. Wahl, O. F. & Le owits, J. Y. (1989, August). Impact of a television lm on attitudes toward mental illness. American Journal of Community Psychology, 17(4), 521-528.

Gilman, S. (Ed.) (1976). e face of madness: Hugh W. Diamond and the origin of psychiatric photography. New York: Brunel/Mazel.

Gilman, S. (1982). Seeing the insane. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Gilman, S. (1988). Disease and representation: Images of illness from madness to AIDS. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Lawson, A., & Fouts, G. (2004). Mental illness in Disney animated lms. e Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 310-314.

Wilson, C., Nairn, R., Coverdale, J., & Panapa, A. (1999). Mental illness depictions in prime-time drama: Identifying the discursive resources. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 33(2), 232-239.

Brode, D. (2005). Multiculturalism and the mouse: Race and sex in Disney entertainment. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Byrne, E., & McQuillan, M. (1999). Deconstructing Disney. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press.

Giroux, H. (2004). Are Disney movies good for your kids? In S. Steinberg & J. Kincheloe (Eds.), Kinderculture: e corporate construction of childhood (pp. 164-180). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Tavin, K., & Anderson, D. (2003). Teaching (popular) visual culture: Deconstructing Disney in the elementary art classroom, Art Education, 56(3), 21-24, 33-35.


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