1. Powerful Impact
    1. Unscripted content that portrays mental health stories of “real people” can have a powerful impact.
  2. Prioritize Mental Health Support
    1. If a cast member wants to share their story, consult a mental health advisor to ensure they are ready and have the support they need.
  3. Use Credible Experts and Licensed Professionals
    1. Ensure you are using credible experts and licensed mental health professionals on-screen.
  4. Provide Resources
    1. Consider providing resources for viewers who may have a strong emotional reaction.


Consider Whether Cast Members Are Ready to Share Their Story 

  • Individuals who face significant mental health challenges are often not prepared for the stressors of having their story in the public eye. 
  • When casting, consider whether the individual is solid in their recovery and whether they have the necessary coping skills and support system in place. When possible, engage a mental health advisor during the casting process so they can help determine if potential subjects are emotionally ready to participate. 
  • This recommendation also applies to cast members on ongoing series who feel compelled to share their story during the course of filming. 

Support Cast Members Throughout the Process of Sharing Their Story

  • Even if a cast member is effectively managing their mental health challenges, participating in an unscripted series or film can introduce difficulties — particularly if they are in a new environment or without their usual support network. 
  • Make sure there is a system in place to support cast members during production and release, whether it’s an on-call mental health professional or access to virtual mental health services. 
  • It’s helpful to educate cast members on the type of attention they’re likely to receive as a result of the project, including the scenario that viewers might interact with them or ask for advice on social media. 

Find the Right Experts to Appear On-Screen 

  • If a mental health expert is providing commentary or otherwise appearing on-screen, ensure they are qualified and experienced in the specific topic that’s covered in your project. 
  • If your storyline involves therapy, find an on-screen mental health professional who can help audiences understand what therapy is and how it actually works. The general public does not always know what happens in therapy, which can lead to apprehension and prevent people from seeking help. Avoid the use of life coaches and other professionals who are not licensed therapists, which can present misinformation and perpetuate misconceptions about therapy.
  • Consider using the Expert Directory to find a credible expert.  

Avoid Cliffhangers that Revolve Around Mental Health Challenges

  • Unscripted series sometimes use experiences like panic attacks, drug use, or self-harm as cliffhangers between episodes. These storylines can have a very real and serious impact on viewers, and leaving audiences to sit with an unresolved storyline can heighten their emotional response. 
  • Consult with a mental health advisor when exploring this approach.  

Recognize the Audience’s Relationship to Cast Members 

  • Viewers may become more attached to cast members in unscripted programming because they are real people — and may even think of cast members as friends or personal acquaintances.
  • Because of this perception, if a cast member is going through something challenging — such as thoughts of suicide, self-injury, or substance use — viewers might have a more intense emotional reaction than they would to scripted content.
  • Consult with a mental health advisor to determine the safest way to present storylines that involve a cast member struggling.  
  • Additionally, consider developing supporting content that helps viewers cope, like a post-show interview with the cast member to discuss the steps they’ve taken to improve their mental health since the project was filmed. 

Help Cast Members Understand the Importance of Language

  • In unscripted content, dialogue reflects the everyday language that people use to describe mental health challenges and experiences. In some cases, that language might unintentionally trivialize a mental health condition or perpetuate stigma. 
  • While it’s challenging to address conversations or storylines in unscripted content as they unfold in real time, consider providing training or education for cast members prior to filming, to help them understand how their language and behavior might impact viewers.  

Leverage Ancillary Content to Support Viewers

  • Unscripted content doesn’t always have the time or ability to dig deeper into the mental health challenges cast members are facing, the factors driving these challenges, or the specific ways that cast members are getting help. 
  • If your content involves interviews or testimonials, consider asking cast members to elaborate on their mental health experiences — even if their response won’t end up in the main programming. This footage can be used to create ancillary content that helps viewers learn more outside of the primary viewing experience. However, it’s important not to push cast members into revealing or talking about more than they are comfortable sharing.

Weave in Mental Health Even if It’s Not the Main Focus of the Story

  • Your story doesn’t need to feature a main character with a mental health condition, or have overt mental health themes, to create a positive impact. 
  • Consider ways to leverage secondary characters or weave in moments that normalize conversations about mental health, model healthy coping, and demonstrate positive peer support.  
documentaryReality TV

Download / print