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Mental Health in Media and Entertainment


Mental illness is common—1 in 5 adults have a mental health condition within a given year. Considering it’s an issue that touches so many lives, it’s no wonder that mental illness is often featured in entertainment media. These interpretations of how people live with mental illnesses occasionally make waves for reasons good and bad. Because of the relative dearth of mental health media depictions, some applaud TV shows or movies for showing mental illnesses at all. Others fear that media portrayals may have unintended consequences and add to stigma. What is the best way to address mental health in the media?


Emotional Entertainment

Studies have shown that we have an increase in feelings of social bonding and increased pain thresholds after viewing emotionally arousing movies. This is caused by the release of endorphins when we laugh, feel sadness or are frightened. In addition to the positive feelings we get from releasing strong emotions, books, television and other forms of entertainment give us an opportunity to briefly escape or feel better about our own problems.

Some elements that make a story entertaining parallel the experiences people have with mental illnesses. Mental illnesses involve changes in thinking, emotion and behavior, and are associated with distress and problems functioning in social, work or family activities. These defining characteristics are also challenges commonly addressed in graphic novels, movies and other forms of entertainment.

No matter how compelling a story about a person living with a mental illness or substance use disorder may be, it’s important to consider how and why the mental health condition is being employed in the plot.

What’s Wrong with Showing Mental Health in Media?

There is nothing inherently wrong with depicting mental health in entertainment media. In fact, realistic examples of the ways people live with mental illnesses can be a powerful way to fight stigma. When people with mental illness are not portrayed accurately, however, media can have unintended consequences. Mental health misrepresentation in entertainment media can fuel stigma, leading to discrimination against people with mental illnesses and barriers to treatment. Media that romanticizes or features graphic acts of violence, especially self-harm and suicide, may trigger imitative violence, risking copycat acts.

Storytelling is more than entertainment. Throughout history, stories have been an important way to pass information along. If our most popular methods of storytelling are spreading misinformation about the ways to treat mental health conditions, it could have devastating effects for the health of many people. Likewise, harnessing the power of stories to more accurately represent people with mental illnesses could be a powerful way to combat stigma.

The Importance of Accuracy for Mental Health in Entertainment

People living with mental illness are people first, and showing that in entertainment is critical. The ways we show and talk about mental health can help reduce stigma if done carefully.

A commitment to accuracy when addressing mental illnesses and its treatment can help to:

  • show mental illness as the medical condition that it is, not a character flaw or moral failing,
  • create characters that people with mental illnesses can relate to, decreasing loneliness,
  • show people who are not familiar with mental illness that it is nothing to be afraid of,
  • show viewers how to get treatment and reinforce that treatment works,
  • show that people with mental illnesses can live full and satisfying lives and
  • make viewers aware of warning signs.

Media that accurately depicts mental health conditions can be compelling, lucrative and respectful—it’s unnecessary to rely on stigma and tropes for entertainment value. It is possible to strike a balance between informative and engaging content.


AnxietyDissociative DisordersADHDBipolar DisordersIntellectual DisabilitySleep DisordersDepressionAutismPatients and FamiliesHoarding DisorderGender DysphoriaAlzheimer’sOCDPersonality DisordersEating DisordersGambling DisorderSpecific Learning DisorderSomatic Symptom DisorderSchizophreniaPostpartum depressionAddictionPTSD


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