- When depicting mental health experiences, engage experts and individuals with lived experience early.
- Use the directory included in this guide to find the right expert advisor.
While this guide can be a resource in understanding the types of messages you should amplify or avoid, and the dynamics of the mental health themes in the stories you are telling, many projects require more customized and hands-on expert guidance.
When you want to tell a mental health story safely and authentically, there are two expert perspectives you can and should engage: mental health professionals with subject matter expertise, and individuals with lived experience of the event or condition at the heart of your storyline. Both are important and one is not a substitute for the other.
If your story is scripted (as opposed to a documentary or unscripted programming where your subjects may provide the lived experience) we suggest finding and engaging a subject matter expert from the very beginning of your scripting and story creation. The experts and organizations that advise you can also be good entry points for finding people with lived experiences.
With unscripted programming, it’s also wise to engage an advisor as early in the process as possible. Some unscripted concepts or planned storylines can be very difficult to pull off in a way that is safe for all viewers. Identifying these risks earlier in the process can prevent future issues that could interfere with your vision.
Finding the Right Expert Advisor
If you don’t have an existing relationship with a mental health advisor, you can use the Expert Directory included in this Guide to find potential partners.
Here are a few ideas for questions to ask during your initial conversation with a potential advisor that can help determine if the collaboration is a good fit and start your work together on the right foot:
- What is your experience with projects similar to ours? (In genre, format, theme, etc.)
- How do you typically work with content creators, production teams, show runners, etc.?
- What are your goals when working on collaborations like this one?
- What other experts or advisors do you have on your team who may also be able to contribute guidance, answer questions, or offer suggestions?
How you engage with experts may differ depending on the format, type of media, themes, where the project is in the production cycle, and the time and financial resources available.
In an ideal situation, you’d engage with an expert advisor during development to start building the relationship and get feedback on the core concept.
Here are some things to keep in mind when establishing how you’ll work with your advisor.
- Align on how you would like feedback provided. For ease of implementation, it can be helpful to ask experts to divide their feedback into buckets according to urgency and importance: “critical issues” (things that could be harmful to viewers and that should be addressed), to “accuracy issues and suggestions” (issues most likely won’t cause harm but are important for authenticity and accurate representation), to “general suggestions” (less urgent thoughts that could increase the positive impact of the project).
- Establish timelines and estimated turnaround times for review. We all know that media projects can be unpredictable, but it’s valuable to chart out in advance the points in the project where you expect to need guidance, reviews, or feedback, and attach them to a rough timeline. If these change, you can update the timeline accordingly. If you think you will need quick turnarounds on certain components, be upfront so expectations can be leveled.
- Talk about your approach to potential conflicts or disagreements. In some cases, an advisor may feel strongly about recommendations that the creative team feels aren’t possible or are unwilling to explore. It’s helpful to discuss in advance how you’ll handle scenarios where you reach an impasse.
- Discuss if the collaboration requires a fee or is part of the organization’s programming. If it’s a paid collaboration, establish how the fee structure works (hourly, retainer, project fee) upfront. Some organizations may provide an initial level of engagement (for example, reviewing a script or treatment, watching a rough cut of an episode) with no fee and only charge when the collaboration requires a more significant contribution of time and resources, like advising throughout the project cycle or participating in the writers’ room. If you think you’ll be relying heavily on the advisor, consider making a donation to their organization to help cover time committed to the project just as you would for other consultants contributing to your production, even if a fee isn’t required.
- Clarify whether the relationship can be shared publicly. If it’s important to share the role of your expert advisor publicly, make that clear at the start and agree on a process for any external communications.
Here are some additional tips for collaborating with an expert advisor, drawn from collective experience:
- Be upfront if changing an aspect of the script or storyline isn’t possible. It can make an advisor’s work easier — and prevent potential conflict — if you’re clear about what can and cannot be changed.
- When in doubt, trust your instinct about engaging an advisor. Mental health experts often see content creators second guess or delay their instinct to reach out for advice. “I’ll wait and let them review a more polished version, or share it after I’ve finished writing the scene.” If your instinct is that something might be problematic, inaccurate, or potentially unsafe, it’s better to ask for feedback before you spend time finalizing that part of the narrative.
- It’s OK to ask for a second opinion — just be upfront about it. Let’s say your expert advisor has a serious issue with a core part of your narrative and fixing it will cause a major shift to the storyline. Before you invest that energy, it makes sense that you might want to ask another expert to get consensus. The mental health advocacy community is a small world, so be upfront and tell your primary expert that you respect their opinion but want to ask other experts if they have the same recommendation.