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How the media cover mental illnesses: a review

Zexin Ma (University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA)

Health Education

ISSN: 0965-4283

Article publication date: 3 January 2017




Mental illness has become an important public health issue in society, and media are the most common sources of information about mental illnesses. Thus, it is important to review research on mental illnesses and media. The purpose of this paper is to provide a narrative review of studies on mental illnesses in the media and identifies important research gaps.


A combination of searching key databases and examining reference lists of selected articles was used to identify relevant articles. In total, 41 empirical studies published in the last 12 years were reviewed.


The review found that substantial research had been done to investigate media portrayals of mental illnesses and the effects of such portrayals might have on the public. Media still portray mental illnesses negatively in general, which contributes to the ongoing mental illness stigmatization. Nonetheless, discussions of mental illnesses in direct-to-consumer advertisements and social media tend to be more objective and informative. These objective portrayals could help improve mental health literacy and reduce stigma. More importantly, media can also reduce the stigma if used strategically. Research has found that entertainment-education programs and web-based media have strong potential in reducing mental illness stigma. Recommendations for future research are also discussed.

Practical implications

Findings can guide future efforts to use media to educate the public about mental illnesses and reduce mental illness stigma.


This study reviews the most recent research on mental illnesses in the media and provides important references on the media representation of mental illnesses, media effects of such representation, and using media to reduce stigma.



The author thanks Dr Brooke Fisher Liu for the invaluable feedback when preparing for the manuscript.


Ma, Z. (2017), "How the media cover mental illnesses: a review", Health Education, Vol. 117 No. 1, pp. 90-109.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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