Image Credit: Getty Images / skynesher

Combatting Asthma Stereotypes

Reading time | 7 mins

In 2019, the Asthma Society of Ireland released new research detailing the economic burden of asthma in Ireland. The study revealed that currently one in five children will experience asthma at some point in their lives. It is evidently a very common condition in Ireland and one that many children will experience.

With these figures in mind, it would be fair to assume that most people have had some experience with asthma – whether directly or indirectly. So it is disappointing that a condition that is so common appears to be so poorly managed. In the ‘Easing the Economic Burden of Asthma’ article by the Asthma Society of Ireland, it states that one person dies every six days in Ireland as a result of their asthma. It also states that one person visits the Emergency Department every four minutes in Ireland as a result of asthma. These are shocking statistics. How can a condition that is so common be so poorly managed?

Taking asthma seriously

I have reflected on my own asthma management over the past number of years. There have been periods where my asthma was poorly controlled. There were many reasons for this, including lack of knowledge, laziness and self-consciousness.

As asthma is such a common condition in Ireland, I had a very relaxed attitude towards it. I didn’t consider it to be life threatening and as a result, I didn’t prepare myself for asthma emergencies. Luckily for me, my asthma was mild. It is only in recent years that I have realised how serious asthma can be. When my asthma became more severe in my early twenties, I realised that I could no longer have such a relaxed attitude towards asthma management. The more I learned about asthma, the more I realised the importance of consistent asthma management.

How media depictions influenced my attitude

As a child, many factors influenced my attitude towards asthma. Growing up, the depiction of people with asthma in television and movies had a big impact on my social understanding of the condition. In the cartoons I was watching, the characters with asthma had specific personality traits and a specific skill set. In fact, the characters were often known more for what they couldn’t do than what they could do. They were often the brunt of the joke.

For some reason, in these programmes the characters with asthma were a source of humour in the storyline. I believe the fact that many TV shows and movies made light of asthma as a condition had a knock-on effect on my attitude towards it. As a teenager, I was too embarrassed to take my inhaler in public. I didn’t want anyone to know I had an inhaler. I am sure that, in some way, this led to poor asthma management as I would wait until I was alone to take the inhaler, rather than straight away when it was needed.

When researching for this article, I looked back on some of the characters I recall that had asthma.

Milhouse from the Simpsons

The first character that sprung to mind was Milhouse from The Simpsons. Milhouse is Bart Simpson’s best friend. He is an insecure, socially awkward character who is regularly bullied by Nelson Muntz. It is fair to say that Milhouse is an unfortunate character with a range of issues from bad eyesight to asthma. Milhouse has a tough life managing his allergies and conditions along with being laughed at and bullied by his peers.

For a child with asthma, Milhouse is not a hero or a popular child. The other children taunt and laugh at Milhouse because of his issues. Asthma and the other conditions that Milhouse has are not depicted in a positive way. Instead, Milhouse is a weak and socially awkward character. I didn’t want to have anything in common with Milhouse.

Albert from Hitch

This stereotype is visible in many movies and programmes. How many times have we seen a character taking a puff of their inhaler before doing something they are nervous about? Take Albert from Hitch for example. To me, Albert is another socially awkward, self-conscious, geeky character with asthma. In the movie, Albert hires Hitch to help him win over his love interest, Allegra, as he is incapable of doing so by himself.

Albert is not a confident or strong character. Albert embarrasses himself regularly, he is often the person being laughed at in the movie. When Albert is saying goodnight to Allegra at her door, he takes out his inhaler and then dramatically throws it away before going to kiss her. Albert throwing away the inhaler and kissing Allegra appears as a success in the movie. In reality, a person with asthma would later have to retrieve the inhaler as unfortunately developing courage and confidence does not eliminate asthma as a condition. It is a very light-hearted movie and I can understand that no harm is intended by the asthma references. However, what are the underlying consequences of this stereotype being portrayed in this way in movies and cartoons? What does this sort of characterisation tell young people about using their inhalers in public?

Mikey from the Goonies

Similarly, when Mike Walsh leaves the tunnels in The Goonies, he has overcome his fears and has become a more confident and courageous person. It is at this point that he throws his inhaler away as if he no longer needs it now that he is a strong and brave person. This gives the impression that people who use inhalers need them for courage instead of medical reasons and that using them is a sign of weakness.

In my opinion, Mikey's regular use of his inhaler in The Goonies is a poor representation of asthma. In some instances, Mikey takes a puff of his inhaler having not displayed any asthma symptoms. I feel that this is an unnecessary addition to the film and it could be quite misleading for people watching who have little to no experience of asthma.  I don't believe that Mikey's inhaler use accurately displays how an inhaler should be taken or indeed when an inhaler should be used. It is another example of how asthma has been misrepresented in popular culture in the past.

In my opinion, Mikey's sporadic and frequent use of his inhaler trivialises the device rather than highlighting the importance of inhalers as potentially life-saving medicines. It is important to note that the idea that a person would no longer need an inhaler once they have accomplished a goal or achieved a success is a truly unrealistic and unfair notion to include in a film.

People with asthma should not feel like they must explain the use of their inhaler as a result of this stereotype.

Saying no to the stereotype

It is hard to imagine another chronic condition like diabetes or arthritis being used for humour in this way. I personally feel that the asthma stereotype has a huge impact on the willingness of young people and children taking their inhalers in public. When growing up, nobody wants to be the person who isn’t fast enough or strong enough. Nobody wants to be laughed at or bullied like the characters we sometimes see with asthma on television.

It is important that asthma awareness and advocacy is done in a positive way, promoting understanding and knowledge and an acceptance of asthma as an often life-long condition. Rather than making light of the condition, asthma should be portrayed as the condition it is, a sometimes life-threatening and life-long condition that requires careful and consistent management. In short, it isn’t something to be laughed at.

Wheezy from Toy Story – a positive example

Wheezy the penguin from Toy Story is fortunate enough to have a kind and caring friend in Woody. Woody looks after Wheezy when he is coughing and wheezing. It is great to see the symptoms of asthma depicted in a positive way like this. Wheezy is not being laughed at, he is being cared for by his friend.

In more recent times, I haven’t seen many programmes with the negative stereotypical and unfortunate asthmatic character. As time moves on, I hope we will see a variety of personalities and characters with asthma – confident characters or popular characters, or characters that are laughed with rather than laughed at.

Real life examples of successful people with asthma

There are many famous people who have succeeded by managing their asthma symptoms. Exploring the lives and successes of these people is inspiring for asthma sufferers. For people who aspire to be physically fit and successful in sport – David Beckham and Frank Lampard are great examples of people who have controlled their asthma in order to achieve their goals.   

Singers Pink and Harry Styles show that asthmatics can have the strong and controlled breathing that is required for a career in singing. Presidents of the United States John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Theodore Roosevelt proved that people with asthma can be successful, confident and socially skilled.

The takeaway

I hope that in years to come the asthma stereotype described in this article will fizzle out. Instead I hope that main stream media will provide our young people with positive asthma stories, factual information and inspiration will hopefully help to diminish the unfair representation of asthma in those old cartoons and movies. I hope that in future, movies and television will relay the message that despite being a serious condition, when well-managed, asthma shouldn’t stop you from achieving your full potential.

UK/MED/20/0182 June 2020