5 Ways Media Can Improve Their Portrayals of Mental Illness

Stigma festers in misunderstanding and lack of awareness. 

So, you want to incorporate mental illness or mental health into your project? There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness and media. It's about time mental health and media find a good balance.

So, you want to incorporate mental illness or mental health into your project?

That’s great!

Mental health is a part of all of our lives, which means if your creative project involves people, it probably involves their mental health too.  Way to go on creating complex, realistic media that will connect deeper with your audience!

But let’s be honest: there’s a good way to talk about mental health and lots of other ways that are just plain awful. 

One of the biggest concerns facing mental health wellness and affecting anyone with mental illness is stigma.  Stigma means the societal pressures, inaccurate attitudes, and outright cruelty that make it harder for a person to get the help they need and prioritize their wellness. 

Stigma comes from a lot of places, but the biggest one is from media. 

Think about it: if I absorb messages around mental illness all day every day, they’re going to sink in.  If I’m lucky, some of those messages might be…

  • Mental health is a normal part of everyday lives
  • Mental illness is a scientifically-evidenced legitimate experience
  • Treatment is out there and healing is possible 


“Stigma comes from a lot of places, but the biggest one is from media.”


If I’m not so lucky, some of those media messages will look or sound like…

  • Mental illness isn’t real
  • People with mental illness are weak or attention seekers
  • People with mental illness are dangerous

When we look at these two types of messages, we have to ask ourselves: what sort of society are we creating?  Are we creating a culture of people who seek to support and understand one another? Or a culture too afraid or too ignorant to truly connect? 

Here’s the truth: as a media-maker, you have power over this.  

Your content is capable of adding to narratives of all kinds, changing and shaping the way people view themselves, others, and their world. You know art and stories have power.  You probably wouldn’t be in this if you didn’t. So if we know our media can affect change, and we want to ensure we’re affecting the right change, let’s talk about how. 


5 Ways Media Can Improve Their Portrayals of Mental Illness

1. Learn

Stigma festers in misunderstanding and lack of awareness. 

Oftentimes creators utilize mental illness in their work without having done the research, only to unwittingly create a wrongful or harmful demonstration of the mental illness, adding to the stigma.  One of the best ways to inform your creation is to inform yourself. Spend some time researching mental illness from trusted sources. 

But don’t stop at the clinical facts—consider researching people’s lived experiences. 

We live in an age where we can share our experiences with one another at the click of a button.  Check hashtags, look for mental health advocate accounts, and learn from their first-hand experiences what the mental illness really means.

For places to learn more, check out NAMI’s Education on Mental Health Conditions, Mental Health America Education, or the following social media resources: @WeTalkMH, @TheMHAP, and #KeepTalkingMH.


2. Challenge the Tropes

We’ve all seen the mental illness tropes in media: the “crazy” ax murderer, the “attention-seeking” high school girl, the kids going through mental illness as just a phase– the truth is that these tropes aren’t just harmful, they’re boring.

Really though, as creators, you have the potential to tap into unlimited amounts of media to do or tell something that hasn’t been done before in your unique way.  So please, do something original. 

Start paying attention to where you see the tropes.  I promise once you start looking you’ll see them everywhere.  Instead, subvert the tropes of ignorance and create something authentic.  Use your media as an act of rebellion against lazy and easy messages and insist upon something more substantial. 


3. Play the Narrative Out

Sometimes even the best-intended characters and art can have unforeseen consequences.  When you are working with a topic area as stigmatized as mental illness, consider taking a moment to really examine how your message plays out. 

Do the readers spend three-quarters of a book with one message of mental illness, only to have it lightly challenged in the last chapter? Do viewers have to really work in order to understand your educated concept?

Consider how you are representing mental health from all angles and all perspectives. 

Try to tear it apart and see what potential harm there could be.  There can and will never be a single perfect representation of mental health. Each experience of mental health is unique and personal.  But consider yours carefully. We do not have to be perfect creators, but we do need to be thoughtful ones. 


4. Villains

So you want to give the villain in your story mental illness? Maybe don’t.

This is a dangerous time for people with mental illness.  Gun violence is being ascribed to mental illness in spite of the fact the research proves otherwise.  People with mental illness are harassed, physically and verbally, and mental health care can be difficult to access. Maybe living with mental illness is hard enough.  Maybe we don’t need another story about why “someone with mental illness isn’t safe.” 

There are hundreds of complex reasons someone might become an antagonist—each one more interesting and authentic and a better example of creating than “it’s because they’re crazy.” And for those of you who argue that someone would have to be mentally ill to harm another person?

You can check the DSM—there’s no diagnosis for asshole. 


5. Ask for Extra Opinions

At the end of the day, this article is a single perspective in an ocean of unique experiences with mental health. 

If you aren’t sure if your media is a fair or accurate representation of mental illness—ask.  Reach out to mental health advocates. Connect with mental health professionals.  Ask someone to see how your media connects with their personal or professional experience.  This is the best and most honest way to know the impact your media can make.

And if you do ask someone to review your work, consider offering to pay them a consultant fee.  Just as you inevitably want to be recognized for your hard work, mental health advocates want to be recognized for theirs. 


In the End…

Being thoughtful in educating yourself about mental illness can only improve your abilities as a creator.  And while this might seem like a lot to navigate, consider your role in all of this: you have the immense capacity to affect others through your creation. 

You have the opportunity to connect with people who may have never felt truly seen in a story or art before. You have the potential to impact societal messages and themes in order to change this world. 

With all of that power, will you use it lightly?


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