Avoiding Mental Health Stigmatizations & Encouraging Help Seeking Through Entertainment Media

Avoiding Mental Health Stigmatizations & Encouraging Help Seeking Through Entertainment Media

Mass media have the power to shape our perceptions, attitudes and beliefs toward certain groups, issues and individuals. For better or worse, most forms of media, including entertainment media, serve as primary sources of information for many viewers, influencing our understanding of those around us and in turn, our future behaviors and actions.

Unfortunately, for those struggling with mental illness, the depictions of characters with mental health issues often focus on negative and extreme stereotypical traits that portray these individuals as a danger to society and themselves. These depictions are not only inaccurate and unrepresentative of the millions of people worldwide who face mental health challenges, but they also reinforce preconceived stigmatizations which can lead to diminished self-esteem and social exclusion

Mental health professionals are often portrayed as odd, unhelpful, unrelatable and/or unavailable, which can have major consequences on those affected by mental illness. These negative portrayals can interfere with help seeking behaviors and prevent individuals from receiving treatment due to factors such as fear, shame, embarrassment and discrimination. A startling two-thirds of individuals with a mental health disorder never seek professional help.

Too often, entertainment programs portray mental illness as something that destroys lives and fail to show viewers that mental illness is common and treatable. By depicting treatment and recovery, the media can help normalize mental health issues, fight stigma, offer hope, and connect viewers with resources for themselves or loved ones.

In a survey commissioned by the mental health organization Mind, based in the UK, findings showed that after seeing a news report or drama involving a character with mental health challenges, more than half of the respondents expressed that it had improved their understanding of mental health issues and a quarter said it had inspired them to start a conversation about mental health. Furthermore, out of the respondents affected by mental health issues, one third were encouraged to seek professional help and get assistance. 

Several other studies have highlighted the power of the media to reduce stigma, increase understanding of mental health and increase help-seeking behaviors. For example, one study found that participants who watched a film depicting an accurate portrayal of an individual with schizophrenia, were less likely to endorse stigmatizing attitudes toward individuals with the illness compared to participants who saw an inaccurate portrayal of schizophrenia. Another study found that having a strong relationship to the main character of a television series who had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) was associated with lower OCD stereotypes and greater willingness to seek and disclose mental health treatment specifically among participants with a mental illness. 

It is clear that the media have the power to influence our perceptions, attitudes and beliefs about individuals living with mental illness and also to help those affected. Therefore, it is in the best interest of millions of viewers and their loved ones for content creators to portray characters with a mental illness accurately and positively.

Here are some actionable insights for storytellers: 

  1. Avoid perpetuating stereotypes about mental illness that may be stigmatizing and harmful. 

  2. Avoid including stigmatizing language in scripts, such as “crazy,” “psycho,” “looney,” “wacko,” etc.

  3. Avoid making mental illness the defining feature of a character’s personality. 

  4. Introduce likeable and relatable characters who also might happen to encounter mental health challenges. 

  5. Portray doctors and therapists as helpful and supportive rather than incompetent or unavailable.  

  6. Model help-seeking behaviors such as talking to therapists, talking to trusted friends/adults and calling/texting helplines. 

  7. Model help-seeking behaviors not only for serious or diagnosable problems but also for common challenges such as stress, divorce and death. 

  8. Show supporting cast characters modeling supportive behaviors and describing options for seeking help. 

  9. Insert message of mental health treatment, hope and recovery. 

Vicki Harrison, MSW

Program Director, Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing

Stanford Psychiatry Center for Youth Mental Health & Wellbeing

Adrianna Ruggiero

Senior Research Coordinator for CSS