Hold That Thought: Mental Health in the Media

Following on from last week’s post on 13 Reasons Why, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the media’s duty to ensure responsible and relevant material regarding mental health issues.

Following on from last week’s post on 13 Reasons Why, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the media’s duty to ensure responsible and relevant material regarding mental health issues.

The way in which the media portrays mental health is extremely powerful in educating and influence audiences. Many commend TV shows or movies for showing mental illness at all, whilst others are apprehensive that these portrayals have unintentional consequences and add to the stigma around such issues.

Portrayals of mentally ill individuals vary in subtlety. For example, in the opening scenes of ‘Wonderland’, a drama premiered in 2000, showed a man with schizophrenia go on a shooting spree in New York and later stab a pregnant physician in the stomach. As you can imagine, the show was promptly cancelled and caused a huge backlash from mental health groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

When it comes to characters with mental health problems, the media has historically offered negative representations, to the extent where the character is an absolute monster — ending in violence, danger and murder (e.g. Jack Torrence in the Shining, Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho). In the news, we don’t hear about the mentally ill being loving family members or seeking therapy and recovering — we hear about the one’s who harm others or commit suicide. According to Time To Change: “currently almost a third of national newspaper coverage about mental health focuses on danger to others and strange behaviour”.

There is a huge potential to improve the lives of so many through positive, educational and progressive representations. To highlight the positive impact that favourable portrayals of mental health can have on its audience:

  • Following an episode of Eastenders in which a character seeks help for Bipolar Disorder, the number of 18–24 year olds calling a helpline for advice on the issue doubled from 400 per day to 800.
  • Following an episode of Coronation Street in which a character is diagnosed with depression, Mind UK Charity received 78,668 hits on their website information page.
  • Mind UK conducted a survey which showed that 25% of people with mental health issues admitted to seeking help after seeing a character on TV or film with similar issues, and 25% contacted a friend or loved one with a mental health problem to express their concern and support.
  • 48% of people felt that watching a character with mental health issues helped to change their opinion about the kind of people who experience such issues.

In the last 8 years, there has been a great push to force British Media to take responsibility for the way they portray mental health, led by Time to Change and charities such as Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. For example, Mind hosts a yearly award ceremony, The Mind Media Awards, which celebrates the best representations of psychological health and the production companies, writers and journalists who have made a bona fide effort to support education and awareness around mental health.

Time to Change has a great page dedicated to advice around responsible reporting of mental illness — find out more here.

At the most basic level, the media should have the responsibility to:

  • Show mental illness as a medical condition, not a character weakness or moral shortfall.
  • Create characters that people with mental illnesses can relate to.
  • Show the audience how to get treatment and support that treatment works.
  • Make viewers aware of warning signs.

What is your opinion on mental health and the media? What TV shows or Films should be commended for their accurate and sensitive portrayals of mental illness?