Why It Matters - Mental Health

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As storytellers, we have the opportunity not just to entertain, but also to educate, inspire, and create real change.

We have seen firsthand how the emotional connection created by entertainment media can move the needle on critical issues such as HIV, LGBTQ+ rights, and immigration.

Mental health is another arena where stories have the power to influence audience perceptions and behaviors, particularly when it comes to self-care, help-seeking, and supporting the people we care about.  In addition, incorporating mental health themes in our work can deeply enrich our storytelling, making our characters more layered, more authentic, and more relatable to viewers.

Mental health storylines can inspire viewers to support themselves and others — while making our stories more layered, authentic, and relatable.

Despite the potential positive impact of mental health storylines, viewers are still limited in the number and diversity of stories they are likely to see. And the nature of those portrayals is not always helpful or supportive to people who are struggling.

Mental health storylines are rare. An estimated 20.6% of Americans live with a mental health condition, but fewer than 2% of characters in the top 100 movies of 2016 had a mental health condition. And in the 50 most-viewed television series of 2016-2017, only 7% all speaking characters and 16% of series regular characters were shown with a mental health condition.  Additionally, as we explore throughout this guide, mental health is not limited to diagnosable conditions, creating an even greater opportunity for storylines to reflect the full scope of mental health experiences.
Frowning FaceMental health storylines focus on a narrow set of themes. Despite the range and complexity of mental health challenges and conditions, the types of mental health experiences portrayed in film and television are comparatively narrow. Characters in entertainment media are most often portrayed facing addiction, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and mood disorders such as depression. But other common issues such as bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts are rarely portrayed relative to their prevalence in our population, creating a missed opportunity to reflect the range of viewers’ experiences.
Mental health is sometimes misrepresented in ways that create confusion, fear and prejudice: Characters with mental health conditions are often disparaged, made fun of, or even more concerning, portrayed as perpetrators of violence. These portrayals may shape the way viewers perceive their own struggles, how they treat others who are struggling, and the likelihood they’ll seek professional support.
Eye with crossed out pupilMental health storylines lack diversity. Mental health challenges impact people of all genders, races, abilities, cultures, and backgrounds. But the characters depicted struggling with their mental health are still disproportionately male and white. This can make underrepresented audience members less likely to recognize themselves in entertainment stories, and less likely to seek help.

It‘s important to address the limited portrayals of mental health given the broad impact of the issue across all demographics. Even if someone never experiences a diagnosable mental health condition, most people will encounter situations in their lives that impact their emotional wellbeing.

Furthermore, issues like the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, economic instability, political discord, violent tragedies, and the climate crisis are exacerbating an already difficult mental health landscape. Over half of all adults reported increased anxiety and depression in the first half of 2020, and a recent survey found that 40% of adults in the US have experienced a mental health challenge connected to COVID-19.

These challenges only heighten the important role entertainment media can play in expanding mental health storytelling — and for some individuals, these stories may be one of the only touchpoints to learn about mental health, see what healthy coping looks like, and find out about existing resources. Now is the moment for storytellers and mental health professionals to join forces in using the power of entertainment media to inspire actions that improve mental health and wellbeing.