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“He Acted Like a Crazy Person”: Exploring the Influence of College Students’ Recall of Stereotypic Media Representations of Mental Illness

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Abstract

Nearly half of all U.S. adults will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their developmental trajectory, and college students may be particularly vulnerable to experience mental distress. Despite its prevalence, public perception about mental illness remains obscured by misinformation and social stigma. Scholars have long recognized the role that mass media play in cultivating and perpetuating this stigma. The purpose of this study was to survey college students (N = 359) to explore how mass media prime stereotypic conceptions about mental illness and subsequently influence the mechanisms of social stigma. Results indicated that media use predicted higher estimates of the prevalence of mental illness. Participants’ descriptions of mentally ill media characters were characterized by stereotypic attributes including violent behaviors, angry outbursts, childlike behaviors, and severe symptomatology. Recall of stereotypic depictions of mental illness predicted discomfort around people with mental illness, but those participants who defined mental illness using severe symptomatology were more willing to communicate concerns about mental illness. These findings illuminate why it is necessary to assess how audiences perceive media representations of mental illness in order to understand the mechanisms through which mass media shape public perception about mental illness.

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