One of my favorite shows is “Orange is the New Black,” which is set in a correctional institution for women. The show’s heroine, Piper, is serving a year in prison for a nonviolent drug crime.
The show resonates with me because during my time here at the Mental Health Association, it’s been my pleasure to meet and work alongside women who have served time for the very same crime. They got out of jail and, with the help of programs like Women in Recovery, have transformed their lives, and the lives of their families.
But whenever I’m watching the show, I can’t help but feel conflicted about the character with serious mental illness, Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. She is both tragic and comedic, sometimes at the very same time, and her name alone reeks of mental illness stigma. So, I was interested to see what the real-life Piper — author Piper Kerman — had to say about the character portrayed by actress Uzo Aduba.
“The character on the show is very, very different from the real-life inspiration,” Piper said in a Huffington Post interview. “I mean, she’s a different race, she’s a completely different person. Again, they take this idea and add onto it. The (show’s creator) has taken the themes from the book — friendship and empathy, guilt and shame, substance abuse, mental health issues — and blown them up. And that’s fantastic. The book is the true story of what I observed and felt, and while the show changes storylines and characters, it’s very true to the spirit of the book.”
In the grand scheme of things, the “Crazy Eyes” character will have an impact on the way Americans view those in prison impacted by serious mental illness. Some may view her as just comic relief, while others might see the way the actress portrays her in such a way as to greatly show her humanity in ways that may actually reduce the stigma.
While I was researching this blog, I discovered this story “Stigma: Social Functions of the Portrayal of Mental Illness in the Mass Media” on the website of the Annenberg School for Communication.
How Mental Illness is Portrayed in the Media
- 10 percent of the programs involve mental illness, and 2 percent of the major characters (4 percent in late evening) are identified as having mental illness
- 40 percent of all prime-time “normal” characters are violent, but 73 percent of characters with mental illness are violent.
- Almost twice as many of characters with mental illness on TV are victims of violence.
- A female character with mental illness has a 71 percent chance of being portrayed as violent
According to the article, ‘The vast majority of mentally ill characters on TV are not only dangerous but also are touched with a sense of evil that justifies mistrust and eventual victimization. In short, Gerbner believes that the media set the norms for society as well as the price for deviance.
“The mentally ill is a stigmatized group that serves as a lightning rod for [viewers’] pent-up insecurities and, at the same time, demonstrates the moral and physical price to be
paid for deviance.”