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Monday, 1 May, 2000, 00:24 GMT 01:24 UK
Children's TV 'stigmatises mental illness'
Television
Children may be influenced by watching television
Children's television programmes create a negative stereotype of mental illness which encourages young people to develop prejudice, say researchers.

A team from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, monitored a complete week of television for children aged under 10.

They found that there was a high frequency of references to mental illness in the programmes, particularly during cartoons.

However, the references were mainly negative and stigmatising.


TV terms for mental illness
Crazy
Mad
Losing your mind

The most common terms for mental illness were "crazy", "mad", and "losing your mind".

The central implication about references to mental illness was that the character was losing control.

The comic "insane" characters were continuously engaged in illogical and irrational behaviour.

For instance, in a cartoon series they were seen hitting their head with a hammer.

Disrespectful language

Writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the researchers, led by Dr Claire Wilson, say that the frequent and casual use of disrespectful language to describe mental illness demonstrated for children that such expressions are acceptable, or even funny.

They argue that providing children with such examples may encourage them to alienate or bully others.

They say: "The characters, whether comic or villainous, were stereotypically and blatantly negative and served as objects of amusement, derision or fear."

The researchers said that they found no positive attributes among those depicted as mentally ill, or any understanding of the suffering that mental illness involves.

The fact that all mentally ill characters were portrayed in the same negative way encouraged children to make negative generalisations about all mentally ill individuals.

Study welcomed

More research is needed into the impact of negative television references on children's appreciation of mental illness, they say.

Once this data becomes available it should then be used to develop standards for production and vetting of children's programmes.

Lesley Warner, press and public relations manager for the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), welcomed the study.

The MHF published a report last month which found that 70% of people with mental health problems felt that they suffered from discrimination.

'Demonise the mentally ill'

The report highlighted the crucial role of the media in influencing public opinion about mental illness.

Ms Warner said: "People were saying to us they felt that the media had a big part to play in putting over a balanced representation of mental health and in talking about the issues in a sensible way."

Dr Peter Byrne, a psychiatrist and film studies lecturer, said negative images of mentally ill people should be eradicated in the same way that negative images of race and physical disability had been.

He said: "If children's first exposure to mentally ill people is overwhelmingly negative then there is a risk they will start to demonise the mentally ill."

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