Mental Health Awareness Month: These Films and TV Shows Depict Mental Illness (Mostly) Well
Every May, we acknowledge Mental Health Awareness Month, but this year, as we collectively navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels particularly important to discuss and prioritize mental health. While social distancing and sheltering in place can mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, these measures to protect our physical well-being have unfortunate consequences for our mental health — often, we feel isolated and uncertain, and the new routines (or lack thereof) in our new day-to-day existence can have lasting effects.
So, how does popular entertainment figure into this discussion? It's no secret that representation matters. Seeing accurate, nuanced depictions of mental health conditions and mental illness can not only help someone living with a mental health condition or mental illness feel seen, but such portrayals of real-life experiences can be a way to educate, to build support and make folks feel less ostracized. However, according to a study conducted by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (USC AII) and published in May 2019, "Out of 4,598 speaking characters across the 100 top films of 2016, only 76 [or 1.7%] were depicted with a significant or persistent mental health condition." This is a stark contrast with real life insofar as roughly 20% of adults in the U.S. live with a mental health condition. In short, art has the propensity to dismantle stigma and mental health stereotypes — and it’s about time film and television harness that potential.
Why Is It Important to Depict Characters With Mental Illness?
In both mediums, mental health is stigmatized, trivialized (made into a character "quirk" instead of being taken seriously) or used as a plot device. The aforementioned study found that, of 87 film characters who have mental health conditions or mental illness, 47% of characters were disparaged, 22% of characters’ mental health conditions or mental illness were met with humor and 15% of characters felt the need to conceal their mental health condition or mental illness. When characters with mental illness are portrayed on screen, 46% of them were found to be perpetrators of violence. Regardless of intention, most films and shows unfortunately normalize name-calling, with characters slinging words like "psycho," "crazy," "freak," "silly," "nuts," "weird" and "monster" at other characters who outwardly express a mental health condition or illness.
Common Onscreen Faux Pas When It Comes to Depicting Mental Illness
In order to shift how stories portray characters with mental health conditions and mental illness, USC AII suggests that writers ask themselves a very fundamental question: Why am I telling this story? This can help creators avoid common pitfalls, like depicting unnecessary stigma, using a mental health condition as a plot device and making mental illness into the punchline. To be frank, the lived experiences of folks who have mental health conditions are missing from popular culture.
Movies and Shows That Get It (Mostly) Right
When it comes to mental health representation, it’s not all bad news. In fact, in the last decade a few standout shows and movies have made great strides by centering lived experiences, eschewing stigma (or at least having the main character navigate it authentically) and depicting characters who seek treatment and support. Most of all, a common thread here is that the characters depicted in these pieces all learn there’s no Hollywood-esque cure-all for their mental health conditions and mental illness and, instead, learn to manage and live with them.