There's A Problem With How Mental Illness Is Portrayed On TV

When it comes to people with mental health conditions being portrayed on TV, in movies or even in newspapers, it's very hit and miss.

The problem is, when we look at TV soaps and dramas (arguably one of the most easily-digestible forms of media), we start to see a trend.

Mental health charity, Mind, noted that over a three-month period, 63 percent of references to mental health in TV soaps and dramas were 'pejorative, flippant or unsympathetic' with terms including: 'crackpot', 'a sad little psycho', 'basket case' and 'he was Looney Tunes'.

Even more concerning was the fact that so many of the references led to violence. Over the same period, 74 programmes contained story lines on mental health issues. Of these, there were 33 instances of violence to others and 53 examples of self-harm.

The research said: "Almost half were sympathetic portrayals, but these often portrayed the characters as tragic victims. The most commonly referred to condition was depression, which was mentioned 19 times, breakdown was mentioned eight times and bi-polar [was mentioned] seven [times]."

Credit: Ronan

No wonder people find it difficult to tell others about their mental health and how they're feeling. If we don't change these attitudes then more and more people are going to slip through the cracks.

I know it's just personal experience, but out of everyone I know who has serious mental health issues, I can't think of one example of anyone harming anyone else. Is this all in the name of 'good telly'?

via GIPHY

Mind's Head of Media, Alison Kerry, said: "The media has huge influence on societal views about mental health. It contributes to public understanding and informs our knowledge, attitudes and behaviour. Soaps in particular can be tremendously powerful as they still attract millions of viewers each week. Fans of shows such as EastEnders and Emmerdale follow the characters over the long-term and are more invested in the story lines so when they cover mental health we know that they make a real difference. In the past, Mind has seen an increase in hits to our website and calls to our info-line following mental health story lines on the small screen."

As Kerry points out, fans of soaps tend to watch it religiously. They feel like they really know the characters on the screen, so when one of them goes through mental health issues, it can be extremely positive in terms of getting people talking about it.

She continued: "It was great that Coronation Street chose a character like Steve McDonald to experience depression because it helped to challenge some of the misconceptions. He is a blokey character, likeable and one of the comedic characters on the street. By choosing Steve, the writers showed that mental health problems can happen to anyone and showed men that it is okay to seek help and support. Over the last year, Mind has advised on more than 70 soap and drama story lines, helping to ensure that plot lines about mental health are sensitive and authentic. We urge writers to avoid some of the simplistic and predictable stereotypes about mental health. Unfortunately, we do still see representations that automatically associate mental health with violence which just creates fear and misunderstanding. We also see some concerning graphic depictions of suicide and self-harm which we know can potentially trigger copycat behaviour."

Credit: ITV

So, on the flip-side, bad portrayals of mental health problems on our screens can not only be detrimental to the viewership in terms of reaching out for help, but also possibly to encourage more people to either self-harm or commit suicide.

The power in the hands of these writers is so incomprehensibly massive that it's hard to get your head around.

However, Mind is doing something about it. It not only supports writers but its also started up something called 'Mind Media Awards'.

The purpose of the awards is to celebrate the best examples of reporting and portrayal of mental health in print, broadcast and digital media.

Paul Farmer, Mind's CEO, wrote on the website: "The media we consume, whether through TV documentaries, print news, digital blogs, radio or film, has a huge impact on people's attitudes towards mental health problems. Sensitive, accurate portrayals play a vital role in reducing the stigma and discrimination experienced by people with mental health problems."

All of their hard work seems to be paying off. Alison continued: "On the whole, we have found TV portrayals of mental health are improving. Comedy dramas such as My Mad Fat Diary, Flowers and Cold Feet include engaging characters who present mental health in an accessible way. With one in four people experiencing a mental health problem, it's in the interests of programme makers not to alienate such a huge proportion of their viewers."

The basic point is that we're not where we need to be just yet. We're getting there, but the fact is that a quarter of the UK's population will face a mental health problem at some point in their lives. Is it worth exploiting that many people just for some extra viewers?

The answer is no. Be brave. Talk about it.

UOKM8? is a campaign by LADbible, featuring films and stories that provide advice and inspiration on mental health.Explore more here and don't suffer in silence. Let's talk mental health.

MIND: 0300 123 3393.

Samaritans: 116 123.

CALM: Outside London 0808 802 5858, inside London 0800 58 58 58.

Mel Ramsay

Mel Ramsay is the Senior Journalist at PRETTY52 but has worked at LADbible Group as part of the LADbible editorial team since 2015. She started her career writing obituaries and funeral guides online. Since then, her work has been published in a wide variety of national and local news sites. She is part of the BBC's Generation project and has spoken about young people, politics and mental health on television, radio and online.

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