Science, Stigma and the Media

One of my close friends in high school was Romanian. Her parents immigrated to Tennessee from Romania before she was born, but her extended family still lives there, so she visits the country regularly. During my freshman year, she gave a presentation in one of our classes about Romanian culture. Towards the end of her presentation, she began to discuss some less-than-favorable aspects of Romanian life. One of these was the inconvenience of living alongside the Romani people.

I remember my teacher calling her statements into question, arguing that the Romanian treatment of the Roma was biased and unjust. But my friend shook her head. She simmered with resentment as she told us how the Roma would send their kids out into the streets to beg for money. She denounced the Roma’s dirty clothes and homes for sullying the otherwise beautiful country. She asserted that the Roma were indolent thieves that relied on charity and stolen goods for survival instead of getting real jobs. She claimed the Roma were a burden.

To me, discriminatory tendencies in other countries have always felt like distant, surreal injustices. Even though a substantial amount of bigotry exists in the United States, the especially cruel international inequities I was presented with time and time again felt far from my understanding. But when I heard Dr. Chiscop-Head talk about the intolerance of the Romanian people towards the Roma, I understood. The discrimination I’d been hearing about was no longer isolated between the lines of a newspaper.

Because the Roma face significant stigmatization in addition to impoverished living conditions, they fall prey to a slew of mental health problems. As a result, they are further condemned as deranged and disruptive. It’s an agonizing, self-perpetuating cycle. But this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the Roma. These disparaging perceptions permeate our society, too; in the U.S., they’re assigned most commonly to criminals. The media makes sure to emphasize the unhinged mental state of every terrorist, murderer and robber that graces our headlines. As a result, the words “schizophrenic,” “bipolar,” and “psychotic” leave a bad taste in our mouths.

I’ve struggled with mental illness my entire life, so I thought I empathized well with others who have grappled with similar issues. But upon reflecting on these stereotypes, I realized that I hold them too. Every mental illness comes with an image – with schizophrenia, an image of a hallucinating maniac; with borderline personality disorder, an image of a volatile delinquent; with eating disorders, an image of a white girl flashing her bones. And even though I don’t know how these perceptions slipped into my subconscious, I have them all the same. The media has infiltrated my impressions of the world and told me to label some people as “other.” It’s no wonder that rates of mental illness and suicide are only growing with increased media exposure. When your mind’s already against you, watching the world turn against you, too, is crippling.

We all discriminate against one another, whether we’re aware of it or not. And unfortunately, I’m skeptical that systematic, institutional changes would effectively allow us to see each other as we are. That’s not to say they aren’t worth fighting for – equitable access to treatment for mental illness, for example, is essential. But with every passing day, the media’s influence becomes more pervasive, and is arguably more immediately impactful in our society than the government. While we may not all be able to affect change inside the government, we do have the entire world at our fingertips. We have the power to share our stories and to support others who do the same. Instead of allowing sensationalist publications to inform our perspectives, we must choose to shape them from the honest narratives of others. If we do this, we might no longer see those with mental illness as burdens, but instead, as human beings. That may not be enough to transform our culture, but it’s enough to give me hope.

Rebecca Torrence, Huang Fellow ’18

Rebecca TorrenceRebecca is double majoring in neuroscience and linguistics with a minor in computer science. After Duke, she would like to pursue a career as a neurolinguist.