Step 1: Define Intent & Identify Mental Health Themes

Step by Step Process

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  1. Your project can have a positive impact whether mental health is the main storyline or a minor one.
  2. To maximize impact, start by identifying the mental health themes in your project using the checklists below and decide what you want your story to convey.

Some film, television, or digital content has mental health at the heart of its storyline and may be created with the objective of shining light on mental health challenges, conditions, or treatment experiences. Other projects may have a primary narrative or purpose that isn’t clearly connected to mental health, but may still touch upon mental health themes and storylines as characters deal with life challenges, difficult transitions, seek support from one another, or engage in practices to take care of their mental health and emotional wellbeing. 

Defining early on how you intend to engage with mental health in your project is important for minimizing potential harm and maximizing impact. 

Establishing your intention early can help you to identify where and how to engage mental health professionals or people who have lived experience with the issues you’re tackling, and to get your whole team aligned on how you’ll be approaching mental health on your project.

If your project has mental health at the heart of its story, a core intent of your project could be to accurately portray struggles and solutions while also looking for opportunities to increase empathy, expand understanding, and encourage behaviors like help-seeking and self-care that prevent negative outcomes like suicide.  

If mental health is more tangential to your story, your intent could be to show that mental health is something that impacts everyone, to find small ways to bring mental health experiences into your storylines, and to depict positive health behaviors.

Once you’re clear on the impact you want your project to have, reviewing the list below will help you think about the mental health themes in your story. Given the universal role mental health plays in our lives, the possibilities are essentially endless. However, this checklist is a good place to start. 

Thoughts and Feelings

Any time a person’s thoughts, feelings, or related behaviors interfere with their ability to get things done, maintain relationships, or have a good quality of life, this can be defined as an emotional challenge or emotional struggle. These types of storylines, which exist in almost every type of entertainment media, give storytellers the opportunity to dig deeper into common emotional experiences, show what healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms look like, portray the connection between everyday emotions and larger mental health struggles, and demonstrate the power of seeking help before we are at a point of crisis. 

  • Apathy
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Hopelessness
  • Loneliness
  • Regret
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Stress

Situations, Transitions and Trauma

The events, situations, and transitions people face can impact their mental health in that moment, but they can also have more significant, longer-term effects. Challenging life events can cause or worsen mental health conditions like depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders. They can also trigger dangerous behaviors like substance misuse, self-harm, or suicide in people who are already struggling emotionally. 

Some life events have been documented as particularly concerning for our mental health and well-being. For example, the majority of suicides by teenagers and young adults are preceded by a breakup or other relationship issue. The intent here is not to imply that breakups cause suicide, but that difficult transitions can be contributing factors for individuals who are already struggling or at higher risk for suicide. Job loss, sudden changes in financial status, and the death of a loved one are also circumstances that have the potential to significantly harm our state of mind and quality of life. 

Identifying the situations or life events in your story that could have a potentially negative impact on mental health can help you to take early action to portray these situations authentically, as well as showing how people can support themselves and others through difficult periods of our lives. 

Get started with information on difficult or traumatic experiences

  • Academic Pressure
  • Accidents
  • Breakups or Divorce
  • Bullying
  • Childhood Trauma
  • Combat/War
  • Death of Loved One
  • Discrimination
  • Disease or Illness
  • Domestic Abuse 
  • Drug or Alcohol Misuse
  • Family Conflict
  • Family Rejection (Because of Sexual Orientation, Career Choices, etc)
  • Financial Hardships
  • Job Loss
  • Natural Disasters
  • Relationship Problems
  • Sexual Assault/Rape
  • Stalking
  • Violence
  • Work Pressure

Mental Health Conditions

mental health condition is defined by the impact, severity, and longevity of an emotional struggle. Each mental health condition has different risk factors, warning signs, symptoms, lived experiences, and treatment strategies. Accurately portraying the onset and impact of these conditions, and what help-seeking and treatment look like to manage them, can reduce fear and increase the likelihood that people who might be struggling will reach out for help. 

  • Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Depression
  • Eating Disorders
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Substance Use Disorder

Identities and Communities

Some groups are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health struggles than others, typically as a consequence of stressors they may be facing, like discrimination, rejection from family or community, mistreatment in the workplace, access to culturally competent care, or cultural norms and beliefs that make it harder to seek help. Understanding how mental health interplays with a character’s experience and background increases the likelihood that audiences will recognize themselves in the stories we tell and seek help when they need it.

  • Abuse Survivors
  • Asian
  • Black
  • Women
  • Latinx
  • LGBTQ+
  • Military/Veterans
  • Muslim/Middle Eastern/North African
  • Native/Indigenous
  • Seniors
  • Suicide Survivors
  • Trauma Survivors
  • Youth/Young Adults

Negative Outcomes

Stories about negative outcomes like substance misuse and suicide can be challenging to tackle safely. But they can also provide powerful moments of change and recognition for people who are struggling with these issues.

  • Academic Failure
  • Damaged Relationships 
  • Financial Loss or Debt
  • Incarceration/Legal Issues
  • Reckless or Unsafe Behaviors
  • Self-Injury
  • Substance Misuse
  • Suicidal Ideation and Behaviors
  • Work Performance/Job Loss

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more in part 6