Mental health and media representation and the sociology behind

  • As discussed in the podcast with Lucy Nichol on mental health, which can be accessed here, there is a large stigma attached to mental health. There are many contextual variables that account for why this may be, but a common theme emerges; the media. This blog-post will unpick whether mental health is a useful tool for affirmation or a negative source of tropes and analyse the sociology behind mental health and specifically the borderline condition.


    For the case of this blogpost I felt it necessary to focus on depression and borderline personality disorder, as it is important to remember that medical conditions are vast and varied and many falls under the spectrum of having a diagnosable mental health condition.


    When we think of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), the concept of a personality disorder in itself is a contested one. There are several variable as to why this may be the case. Specifically relating to the case of BPD, many who suffer from the condition do so as the result of childhood trauma (Kreisman, and Strauss, 1989). Thus, by characterising BPD as a mental health disorder, this medical syntax, for some, seeks to delegitimise the experiences of many who have experienced trauma or abuse by suggesting that there is something inherently wrong with the framework of their psyche – as opposed to simply being people who are survivors of abuse.


    There are many more aspects to the borderline condition from a sociological perspective. Within sociology there is a social model of disability. This social model of disability affirms how a disability is not an innate attribute, but instead we are disabled by society in the way we are labelled and conditioned into accepting these labels. We are fundamentally disabled by a society that is constructed for normative experiences.


    When analysing the construct of a normative experience in a world that is built against disabled people, there is the point to make that, for many, representations within the media can be affirming. This is because of the stark contrast between the presentation of the bad ‘folk devils’ when concerning disability studies, and the positive impact representation can have at affirming a person’s identity and feeling more connected to a positive representation.


    However, media representations of mental health can be reductive in nature. There is the constant epistemological and ontological struggle between what is defined as presentation of a mental health condition, be that simply presenting mental health struggles in an often-negative manner, or representation, which showcases mental health in a positive light.


    The ontological difference here is key, as for media portrayals to be affirming, they need to be representative of a large and diverse community.


    This conversation came about in my interview with Lucy Nichol, who worked with the charity mind, to help tv programmes and soap operas try and depict mental health in an amenable manner.


    When we think about media representations of the borderline condition, a classic example comes from Girl Interrupted or the new Netflix programme, Russian Doll. When discussing the borderline condition, writer Francesca Lewis (2020) uses the term diffraction, when we think about the borderline condition. Much like how diffraction works in classic physics, how waves occur when they encounter an obstacle, diffraction occurs in our sense of the world when a pertinent change occurs. This can be a physical obstacle or a mental block. These can be understood as diffractive patterns.


    It is important within our analysis as well to discuss how the representations of BPD and wider mental health can often be gendered. In the same way we often ‘queer’ gender, we can use this analogy to queer our representation and interpretation of mental health and the borderline condition.


    Margaret Price (2015) refers to the phenomenon of counter-diagnosis within the borderline condition of queering your diagnosis and queering the borderline diagnosis. When we queer our diagnosis we thus do not have to think about our diagnosis in medical terms because the medical diagnosis thus becomes irrelevant. This is a process of trying to destabilise the very foundations the diagnosis is founded upon.


    Recent studies that have come to light that think about the borderline condition, as well as other mental health struggles, as part of a neurodivergence. In this framework we think of having BPD as being like an experience rather than having to pathologise it. What is meant by this is that our understanding of mental health fundamentally needs to change. Rather than seeing it as something that is wrong with a person, we need to reframe our attention to mental health being a difference in a person, to which we can accommodate.


    The problem that also lies with media representation is that it has external pressures on resources within the medical sphere leading to a stigmatisation against borderline and mental health patients within the medical realm.


    An example of this often lies in the backhanded compliment psychiatrists give to patients that they don’t act like a ‘typical borderline’. This is reductive as it is based fundamentally on tropes against the borderline condition.


    This then brings us to the concluding remarks following this article on how we can counteract negative media portrayals. The essence of this article was to demonstrate that negative presentation in the media, leads to negative representation. By doing so, in a phenomenological sense, these shows seek to mirror experiences of the borderline experience to create an affirming experience for the viewer.