top of page

Stigma, Misunderstandings, and Romanticization of Mental Illness

Majda Kajoshaj

In the world of psychology, it is known that mental health is such an important aspect of one’s overall health, but it is often overlooked. Mental health is our emotional, physiological, and social well-being. The World Health Organization (2018) states that mental health is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community". It is a critical aspect of our overall health in all stages of our lives. It affects how we feel, think, act, what choices we make, how we handle stress and our environment, and how we relate with others. Despite coming so far in raising awareness about the importance of mental health, there is still much work to do in educating the public about the prevalence of mental illness. We also need to fight back against stigma and misunderstanding towards mental illness.

Throughout history, some people believed mental illness was a result of demonic possession or even witchcraft. Witch hunts occurred between the 15th and 17th centuries in Europe. People– mostly women– were accused of witchcraft and many were even murdered. Here in America, the infamous Salem Witch Trials was one such event in the 17th century in which hundreds were wrongly accused and convicted of being witches. Why were they accused of this? The Catholic church suspected people of working with the devil. But in fact, most were not possessed, they were mentally ill. The so-called witches were feared by society due to their mental illnesses and were consequently stigmatized.

Moving forward to the 19th century, mental institutions were growing in size and population. This caused conditions to worsen which, in turn, led to shut downs and deinstitutionalization. Patients that were discharged often had nowhere to go so they ended up homeless. The stereotype that all homeless people are mentally ill remains even today.

The media and Hollywood are also to blame for continuously portraying people with mental illness in a negative light. “Media analyses of film and print have identified three stereotypes: people with mental illness are homicidal maniacs who need to be feared; they have childlike perceptions of the world that should be marveled; or they are responsible for their illness because they have weak character” (Corrigan & Watson, 2002). The prevalence of these stereotypes, especially in the media, negatively informs the public about mental illness and makes it difficult for people to sympathize with the mentally ill.

Stereotypes go hand in hand with misunderstanding. A false perception of mental illness can hurt the person who is mentally ill by isolating them from “normal” individuals in society. Corrigan and Watson (2002) found that people feared and excluded those who are mentally ill, they also believed that they are irresponsible and incapable of making their own decisions, and that people who are mentally ill need to be taken care of like children. Mental health stigma is real and makes this group of people feel isolated and like outcasts to society. Not shaming someone for having a mental illness or simply speaking out about their mental health is something we as a society need to normalize. This is all due to a false perception, fear, and lack of education. As history showed us, there always was stigma surrounding mental health but there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Today, social media has a huge influence on everyone - including mental health awareness. As for the light at the end of the tunnel? Well, that is where we see the bright side of social media come into play. As we use it for a means of communication, we see more openness on the topic of mental health. From educating each other with infographics to sharing our own struggles, we are starting to break the stigma and assure others that they are not alone.

However, this influence may not always be so positive. A problem we see now is a rise in romanticism of mental illness by teenagers. To romanticize is to think about or describe something as being better or more attractive or more interesting than it really is. Many users on social media apps including Tumblr and Twitter are known to use mental illness as an aesthetic. This can severely impact those who are mentally ill. According to Vidamaly and Lee, “It has been demonstrated that popularizing mental illness has negative consequences as it distorts understanding of what mental illness truly is and contributes to a culture that promotes mental illness as alternative self-expression (Shrestha, 2018; Dunn, 2017)”. This proves how stereotyping, stigmatization, misunderstanding, and romanticization all intersect and downplay the seriousness and importance of mental health.

A good example of romanticism is the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Hannah Baker dies by suicide and leaves behind tape recordings explaining why. She was bullied, raped, and abandoned by her friends. She sought out help from the school counselor and other adults, but no one helped her. This show is controversial as it glamorizes suicide and depression for the teens who watch it. Many – who feel they can identify with Hannah– may not reach out to adults because of how untrustworthy they were portrayed in the series. This shows how romanticizing serious mental health issues can dangerously affect those who are more vulnerable.

Encouraging people to seek therapy and the help they need is so important. We can use the tools we have at hand, the power of social media, to help lessen stigma. But social media alone is not the cure. Society’s view on mental health is changing in a positive way as we know it and knowing where these misconceptions arise, understanding their history, is simply the beginning of becoming more informed.


Corrigan, P. W., & Bink, A. B. (2016). The stigma of mental illness. Encyclopedia of Mental Health, 230–234.

Corrigan, P. W., & Watson, A. C. (2002). Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World psychiatry: official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA). From 832/.

Shrestha, A. (2018). Echo: the Romanticization of Mental Illness on Tumblr. The Undergraduate Research Journal of Psychology at UCLA, 69–80.

Vidamaly, S., & Lee, S. L. (2021). Young adults' mental illness aesthetics on social media. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning (IJCBPL). From illness-aesthetics-on-social-media/275826.

bottom of page