Conjuring the ‘Insane’: Representations of Mental Illness in Medical and Popular Discourses

© Media Watch 10 (3) 522-538, 2019
ISSN 0976-0911 E-ISSN 2249-8818
DOI: 10.15655/mw/2019/v10i3/49683

Conjuring the ‘Insane’: Representations of Mental Illness in Medical and Popular Discourses

Sathyaraj Venkatesan & Sweetha Saji
National Institute of Technology (Trichy), India


Representation, primarily understood as ‘presence’ or ‘appearance’ with an implied visual component, is a critical concept in the cultural milieu. Conceived as images, performances, and imitations, representations propagate through various media: films, television, photographs, advertisements, and other forms of popular culture. As such, representations of mental illness perform a pivotal role in framing perceptions about the mentally ill. These representations influence and shape public perceptions about the illness. This essay aims to analyze how mental illness is perceived, represented, and treated in popular culture and medical discourses. In so doing, the essay lays bare the ideologies and the symbolic codes that undergird these representations and the consequent stigma confronted by the mentally ill. Taking these cues, the essay close reads popular representations of mental illness in movies, newspapers, advertisements, comics, and paintings and the articulation of stereotyped images of the mentally ill in a medical discourse which externalize madness in distorted physiognomic features. In so doing, the essay exposes the negative implications of these representations on the personal and social lives of the mentally ill and negotiates the significance of personal accounts of mental illness experience as a means of reclaiming their identity.

Keywords:    Media, mental illness, metaphors, representation, stigma


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Sathyaraj Venkatesan (Ph.D., Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, 2008) is an Associate Professor of English in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli, India. He was a Fellow at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University, New York and currently, an International Field Bibliographer with the Publications of Modern Language Association of America (PMLA). His research interests include literature and medicine, graphic medicine, critical medical humanities.

Sweetha Saji is a PhD Research Scholar in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli, India. Her research concentrates on Graphic Medicine and Medical Humanities.