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Illness Often Shows Up in Media – but Depictions of Chronic Illness Continue to Lack

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One short glance at the range of TV series is enough to realize that medical dramas are enjoying an ongoing popularity. Whether it is “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House M.D.” or “Scrubs,” there are thousands of episodes dedicated to illness and injury.

In times of increasing representation of social minorities, this development in media initially gives the impression of a more tolerant and accepting society. TV shows apparently do not just present characters in perfect health but rather those who are facing disability and illnesses. Naturally, stereotypes are still prevalent; yet, the audience is confronted with prejudices and is animated to discuss them.

However, those shows are based on a concept of illness that is not quite realistic. Patients appearing in medical dramas are hardly protagonists or even supporting characters. They are merely depicted as an element of dramatic events circling around the perfectly healthy main characters. Specific illnesses are usually never discussed for longer than one, maybe two episodes. The patient must deal with their sickness just temporarily; in the end, they either make a full recovery or die. This results in a fictional world representing illness as an antagonist and patients who are just objects of their health. An illness can be either defeated or the battle is lost. There is no in-between.

But what about those who experience long-term side effects? What about those whose illness is chronic? What about those whose life is ultimately changed because of their illness? How do those people cope with the pain and the consequences?

The media does not answer those questions. Chronically ill people are hardly ever the center of narration. There are no role models who fight an illness for longer than perhaps a few months. There is no one chronically ill people can identify with, no one they can look up to and see as an inspiration, even though it is “just” fictional. I do not mean to say that this representation would compulsorily result in an improvement of life regarding those who are chronically sick. But it would widen the picture of illness. Actual representation is a not-seized opportunity to prove how liberal our modern society is; they could finally give those a voice who are invisible because of their illness. It is a chance to discuss pain, illness and long-term effects in society. Actual representation would raise awareness for the struggle and the battle that most people who live with chronic illness must face.

And yet, they do not seize this chance. Instead they keep depicting people who are expected to develop battle plans and to gain superiority over their illness. And of course, they have several plans; so, in case the first one does not figure out, there is still a backup plan they can follow until they are either healed or, flatly said, dead. However, this is just a poor strategy built upon the mentality of our society. People want to see illness as a short-term project; when human beings try to accept their chronic illness, it forces everyone to face the fragile nature of health. This insight would endanger the illusion of control over human health. People would see how unpredictable and influential their own health can be. But the truth is the following: Chronic illness does not choose who to affect; it could be the girl next door, the assistant in your favorite café or it could be you.

Getty Image by drogatnev

Originally published: November 11, 2018
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