This article reviews dominant media portrayals of mental illness, the mentally ill and mental health interventions, and examines what social, emotional and treatment-related effects these may have. Studies consistently show that both entertainment and news media provide overwhelmingly dramatic and distorted images of mental illness that emphasise dangerousness, criminality and unpredictability. They also model negative reactions to the mentally ill, including fear, rejection, derision and ridicule. The consequences of negative media images for people who have a mental illness are profound. They impair self-esteem, help-seeking behaviours, medication adherence and overall recovery. Mental health advocates blame the media for promoting stigma and discrimination toward people with a mental illness. However, the media may also be an important ally in challenging public prejudices, initiating public debate, and projecting positive, human interest stories about people who live with mental illness. Media lobbying and press liaison should take on a central role for mental health professionals, not only as a way of speaking out for patients who may not be able to speak out for themselves, but as a means of improving public education and awareness. Also, given the consistency of research findings in this field, it may now be time to shift attention away from further cataloguing of media representations of mental illness to the more challenging prospect of how to use the media to improve the life chances and recovery possibilities for the one in four people living with mental disorders.