New Media as a Powerful Ally in the Representation of Mental Illness: Youtube, Resistance and Change – Katie Ellis.

After finding ‘Mental illness in popular media essays on the representation of disorders’ by Lawrence C. Rubin online, I was excited to come across this essay by Katie Ellis, where she discusses the impact the powerful media platform YouTube is having on the representation of mental illness. I was particularly interested to read this as I have been considering using Instagram and other possible social networking platforms to be able to contact those who share their story of Seasonal Affective Disorder and whether they would be open to discuss it further with me.

Ellis begins by explaining the users of YouTube, “ranging from the amateur to the professional, these user-generated videos allow a variety of representation not often seen in mainstream media.” (Ellis, 2012: 184). Immediately she is appreciating the difference between mainstream media such as the news which is heavily influenced by the people who collate and produce it, to YouTube which is essentially an online platform which allows the ‘freedom of speech’. Despite the obvious rules and regulations, this freedom of speech allows to create these ‘new’ representations from the ones which have already become stigmatised. It shares a new light on mental illness with more honest, real life accounts. However there are times where this can be reflected negatively, as Ellis refers back to a YouTube video of female with bipolar disorder whom was unmedicated and confronting people on a Atlanta train. “Not only had the woman become the face of mental illness for the other passengers on the train, but she reached a global audience…with 847, 638 views and 10,274 comments, conversation around the initial video reflected and reinforced stigma associated with mental illness.” (Treatment Advocacy Center, 2008 cited in Ellis, 2012: 184). Some of the comments are included, referring to the female as crazy and even some suggesting they would attack her. I went to find this video via YouTube myself and although I cannot be certain I definitely had the right video, it was still uncomfortable to watch and it’s not surprising that people were responding in such a way. I also tried to source the video through the blog article mentioned in the paper, and as I clicked on the link, it lead me to a YouTube page with the video no longer available. This may be due to what horrific responses the video received. It is so easy to pass judgement upon a situation when you don’t really know what is going on. There is no doubt so many of those viewers will have watched it are completely unaware the female suffers with bipolar disorder, meaning she was easily labelled ‘mad’, demonstrating the point I previously picked out made by Anne Rogers and David Pilgrim of those who do not understand tend to associate those with mental illness with violent and psychotic behaviour. This highlights why it is so important to be able to challenge these stigmas through things like my project and ‘educate’ those who do not understand. By explaining and sharing stories of how a mental illness really is, it will slowly contribute to breaking down those assumptions and misjudgements by so many.

Ellis refers to Peter Wollheim’s point that “these kinds of labels create a cultural stigma around mental illness which may prevent people from seeking the treatment they require.” (Wollheim, 2007 cited in Ellis, 2012: 185). This is a hugely important point as it is responses like this which cause people not to speak out and suffer alone. With such a stigma surrounded by mental illness, propelled by these uneducated and hurtful comments, it is no wonder that these people become more isolated by society. Yet not only this, but by causing people not to speak out, it doesn’t challenge or change the stigma resulting in an endless repetitive circle. It again shows why it is important to create my project as it will be encouraging people to share their stories and create their own representations rather than the one the media has created for them.

However, not everything which came out of the scrutiny of this video is bad. “A video post from her brother received 516,917 views and 3,558 comments and opened up a conversation around mental illness and the damaging effects of the negative community attitudes.” (Ellis 2012: 185). This demonstrates the positive influences of media, and whilst it still acts as a huge platform for stigma, it also grants the opportunity to challenge it. As I previously mentioned, comments from others may be what is preventing those suffering from speaking out, but such a positive response to her brother’s video will encourage others to do the same. With the 3,558 comments, it also opens discussion and contribution whilst people offer their support. This is supported by Wollheim who believes “YouTube provides an opportunity to address and revise the prejudice against people with mental illness and has been used by both people with mental illness for the purpose of autobiographical testimony and mental health advocates interested in ‘stigmabusting'”. (Wollheim, n.d cited in Ellis, 2012: 186). The platform is encouraging of story-telling by all and the more others see people speaking out, in inspires themselves to do the same. It is so similar in the way that people will follow a crowd making negative comments, but also more people will speak out seeing others do it. From personal experience of people I know who have shared their story of mental and physical illness, the support network they have built has been unbelievable. Just by enabling the opportunity for other people to comment, Leon Tran believes “such a conversation invites the creation of community, which while not a replacement for traditional therapy, has potentially therapeutic and life-affirming benefits.” (Tan, 2008 cited in Ellis, 2012: 187). Whilst there is so much negativity surrounding the media, people forget the unbelievable strengths it has, like the ability to make something viral within 5 minutes. The smallest amount of support can go a long way. It is a brilliant community to encourage people to support each other, which is why I am excited to be able to share this project both online and in the exhibition.

Ellis argues how “YouTube uniquely enables these types of representations by putting distribution under the control of people actually experiencing the illness and associated social stigma.” (Ellis, 2012: 187). This shows how it provides the opportunity for people to share true stories rather than having them become distorted through various media, very similar to how people use Instagram to tell their experience of mental health. This highlights to me how it is so important to make sure I use the information given to me from those I speak to appropriately, similar to how Sarah Pink in Doing Visual Ethnography explains how it is important for the photographer to appreciate they will not know how it feels for the participants and it must not be misrepresented. My project is providing the opportunity to share a story but through the platform of my photographs therefore it might be worth considering more whether to make this a collaborative project so the participants have more control over their story being told.

Overall, this essay was incredibly engaging and I actually found it quite refreshing compared to the previous books I have been looking at because it discusses mental health in a more contemporary form. I have spent my life growing up with exciting media like YouTube, including watching and uploading my own videos but like many other things, it has brought a lot of negativity. Although social media was only really beginning in my teenage years, people of that age now are completely consumed by it and can often be subject to cyber-bullying. There are often devastating news reports of young children who commit suicide following online bullying through these platforms and have become harder to control. I find it hard to believe that there will ever be a way to tackle and put an end to this as social media gets stronger everyday. But as discussed throughout the essay, it also has huge positives which Ellis appreciates through “while the media has been instrumental in encouraging negative stereotypes, more recent platforms can act as a powerful ally.” (Ellis, 2012: 196). Thinking of cyber-bullying, it drew my mind back to my research for my Phonar project where I was producing a piece of work based on my anxiety. In my research I came across a female named Lisa Schwartz on YouTube who used the platform to create funny, entertaining videos but also created one which shared her experience of living with anxiety. She also created a Taylor Swift – Shake It Off Parody where she has taken many hateful comments on her videos and used them in a positive way, to ignore them and entertain her 1,445,485 subscribers. Sadly not many people would be able to handle such comments so positively, but this video is both incredibly inspiring and hilarious and shows how such a strong community she has involved herself in supports her endlessly, essentially showing the power of communication through media.

(Schwartz 2015)

As I delve into my own project, this essay has once again reinforced the importance of correct representation and respecting the participants and the information I share. The internet and all media platforms, particularly social, are incredibly powerful in both enforcing stigma and discrimination but also challenging it. With my project, I intend to help continue challenging the stigma of mental illness and encourage more people to share their stories.

Ellis, K. (2012) ‘New Media as a Powerful Ally in the Representation of Mental Illness: Youtube, Resistance and Change’ In ‘Mental Illness in Popular Media Essays on the Representation of Disorders‘. Edited by Rubin, L. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Company Inc. 184 – 201.

Schwartz, L. (2015) Taylor Swift – Shake It Off PARODY [online] available from <; [19 January 2015]


~ by victoriasimkissphotography on January 19, 2015.

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