By Lauren Rearick
In recent years, television series and movies earned praise for creating storylines centered on mental health issues, but not every depiction of this issue was necessarily accurate. The results of a recent study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention concluded that, of the top 100 grossing films of 2016 and the top television series of 2016 to 2017, nearly half of the portrayals of mental health in those works perpetuated incorrect stereotypes about mental health.
Researchers determined that only 1.7 percent of characters in movies and 7 percent of characters in television series were given a storyline pertaining to mental health, HuffPost reported. When film or television did include a mental health storyline, LGBTQ+ characters and characters of color were largely ignored. Of the films and television series studied, few characters with a storyline that centered on mental health were Black (film: 14 percent, television: 19 percent) Latinx (film: 0 percent, television: 5 percent), Asian (film: 5 percent, television: 4 percent), or multiracial (film: 1 percent, television: 4 percent). That number further decreased among members of the LGBTQ+ community; zero of the LGBTQ+ characters in the films they studied discussed having a mental health condition, and television included only eight LGBTQ+ characters with storylines related specifically to their mental health.
“What surprised me most is that while mental health conditions cut across every community, in film and TV characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and the LGBT community are erased when these portrayals are shown on screen,” Dr. Stacy L. Smith, an author of the study, told HuffPost.
Although representation, even in small amounts, might be considered a victory for the 46.6 million American adults living with a mental health issue, the study found that members of the television and film community aren’t doing their part to lessen stigma associated with mental health conditions, and with talking about them. When characters with a mental health condition were included in storylines, they were ridiculed, called names including “weird” or “crazy,” or were shown in a humorous or mocking light. “These findings suggest that experiences of individuals with mental health conditions are largely trivialized in entertainment storylines,” the study noted.
Along with a lack of appropriate seriousness regarding mental health, the study said that television and film frequently relied on characters with explicit mental health storylines to be portrayed as violent. This character trait was especially concerning for the study’s authors, as they noted that this reinforced an “erroneous belief that individuals with mental health conditions are largely ‘dangerous’ to society.”
The study did not consider depictions of mental health storylines on original programming offered through streaming services like Netflix or Hulu in their findings, but they noted more research concerning that area is needed. In closing notes, the authors wrote that experts do not yet completely understand the impacts of viewing accurate portrayal of storylines that actively feature mental health, but they believe it would be beneficial, and is something that Hollywood should consider.
“By authentically depicting the nuanced and complex way that mental health conditions intersect individuals’ lives, media can introduce audiences to new ways of thinking, ways to ask for help, and ultimately create necessary shifts in our cultural beliefs about mental health,” the study noted. “In doing so, media can cease to be an engine for stigma and one source of solutions.”