The way the media portrays mental illnesses like hoarding and OCD maintain harmful stereotypes

In Opinion
An illustration of a two people in shadow laughing as they watch a TV screen. The TV depicts a girl shrugging her shoulders as she sits cross-legged in the middle of piles of junk.
(Amanda Tran / Daily Titan)

While the media has created more visibility for mental health issues, it also tends to create and maintain harmful stereotypes that misinterpret actual behaviors, specifically hoarding, a type of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), to extremes.

“Movies and TV present OCD as quirky or fun. Characters often use their symptoms to their advantage, almost like a skill or superpower. Hollywood has created the belief that OCD is just double-checking, hand washing or a strong dislike of germs,” wrote Ethan S. Smith, an OCD advocate and who’s been diagnosed with OCD himself, in an article for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In reality, OCD is more than just repeated hand washing and extreme organization. Hoarding is the excessive need to save items that others may deem as worthless. This in turn may impact living spaces and functionality of the home.

The “Hoarders” and “Hoarding: Buried Alive” TV crew usually go into a hoarder’s home, gut it out completely, only to reveal the hoarder has completely filled their home again in a matter of months.

“With TLC, you almost expect with the narration, the tone of the narration, the clips and how they frame it that there is this carnival barker feel like, ‘Look at these crazy people!’” Jennifer L. Pozner, author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV,” said in an interview with CNN.

Shows like these make hoarders look like outsiders to the rest of the world, and portray the people cleaning out their houses as saviors. In reality, this is the worst way to help a hoarder, and is most likely causing more harm than good.

Having the hoarders consent to clean up their house is necessary, because without it the hoarder may become further attached to their items, according to the International OCD Foundation.

This attachment is clearly shown as the hoarders anxiously allow television crews into their homes and are depicted yelling and screaming as the crew tries to throw away the hoarder’s belongings.

“Bob’s Burgers” has also attempted to depict hoarding more casually by portraying the illness in a more loveable way in its “Thanks-Hoarding” episode. Teddy, the Belchers’ close friend, invites the family over to help him cook Thanksgiving dinner. It’s at Teddy’s house that the Belchers discover a room filled with things Teddy’s been hoarding.

Although this is a more mild version of hoarding, Teddy still isn’t exactly a well-thought-out representative for the mental illness.

For example, his hoarding is contained to just one room, when usually, it’s not the case. In severe hoarding disorders, the person diagnosed may have lost full function of many rooms in their house.

When the Belcher’s try to clean Teddy’s house and notice his discomfort, they decide it’s best to let it go and his hoarding becomes a mild character flaw that the Belcher’s overlook.

This feeds into a common mental illness stereotype that these disorders are untreatable.

Even when portrayals are primarily positive, the characters rarely see progress, according to an article from Psych Central, a mental health online source.

When OCD is misrepresented or dismissed on a show, it may affect the way people with OCD view themselves, as well as prevent them from feeling the need to get help.

In order to combat the mental health stigma around OCD, the media should portray three-dimensional characters with mental disorders who aren’t depicted as crazy or untreatable.

To better do this, writers need to first make a relatable character before diving into the character’s mental illness. They should also show how treatment can help characters better deal with their disorder.

On reality shows, television producers could try to depict not just extreme cases, but also show mild cases that are treatable. They could also do a better job of depicting those with mental illnesses as more relatable.

There are many stigmas surrounding mental illness, and although the media can be used to raise awareness it should be cautious in how it does so.

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