Depression and stigma in the media

Yesterday was the 20th World Mental Health Day, an annual event intended to raise awareness of mental health issues. This year’s theme is ‘Depression: A Global Crisis’. As this post from The Quietus powerfully demonstrates, ‘two articles published this week have demonstrated quite how much we have yet to achieve.’

I don’t have much to add to Josh Hall’s piece, which pinpoints how crass and inaccurate coverage of mental health issues in the media can be, except this: I was particularly struck by India Knight’s claim that ‘there is no stigma’ attached to depression–quite aside from how she chooses to understand or use that term–any more, because of the number of contemporary popular memoirs about their authors’ experience of mental illness. One part of our research in the CHH is concerned with this genre of writing and its recent explosion. It is a publishing phenomenon and a genre which, we have found, produces some ambivalence among readers, journalists, critics, and students, as often dismissed or equated with emotionally incontinent misery memoir as celebrated for its contribution to the understanding of particular problems of illness or health. This is clearly the distaste and suspicion which lies behind Knight’s piece, and she is very far from being original here. Unfortunately, stigma is a complex phenomenon, and not the same as taboo. Because something is highly visible, talked about, or published about, does not mean that it is destigmatized; sometimes, quite the opposite. This example of depression, and all writing about depression, being associated by a columnist with popular hobby horses of the op-ed page such as celebrity culture, ‘misery lit’, etc., especially in pointed opposition to ‘what normal people do’ (Knight’s phrase), is in fact perfectly illustrative of stigma in action.

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About James Whitehead

Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in English, Liverpool John Moores University
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3 Responses to Depression and stigma in the media

  1. One of the things that I find particularly irritating regarding stigma is how so much writing of it — including some in the health humanities, unfortunately — simply fails to engage with the abundant literature defining and operationalizing stigma. Stigma as a subject of (scholarly?) inquiry is not equivalent to a colloquial sense of “alienated” or “prejudiced,” but of course has a rich and vibrant literature from the classic Goffmanian work to some of the more recent sociological work connecting stigma to power gradients, etc.

    The work is out there, much of it is good, and perhaps just as much is helpful in thinking about and studying stigma. Not only should health humanities scholars make use of it, but we should not be afraid to critique analyses which do not so engage, IMO (including lay treatments).

  2. James Whitehead says:

    Yes, indeed, I was trying to nod towards the post-Goffman tradition in sociology (I hope not too obliquely!) in one of the links, although I then used the word in a more general sense in the last line. What struck me in this example is that ‘stigma’ has taken on a popular connotation which has something to do with the lack (or plenitude) of representation across various media; it can’t exist if we’re all talking about it, India Knight thinks.

    The contradiction hardly needs pointing out: stigmata are signs, at least etymologically, and may be as bound up with signifying acts like talking, writing memoirs, newspaper attitudinizing, etc., as eliminated by them. More representation (and even more advocacy, if it is misunderstood or felt to be excessive) may not mean less stigma. I’m afraid I don’t know the sociological literature well enough yet to say whether it covers this point already, and would happily be informed if it does, but here is an example of stigma not just as a social process at work in observable groups (which is what I take to be the focus of most of the social science work) but as a feature of media discourse – we more need nuanced analysis (as in, not ‘more is always better’) of this too.

  3. No, I entirely agree with your substantive point — the representation of stigma in mass media does not constitute evidence of the diminution of such stigma. Insofar as stigma is inextricably linked to power and privilege, one could even suggest, as you do here, that the appearance of a given subject in mass media might be taken as evidence that the stigma persists.

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