USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Study Shows Film & TV “Dehumanize” Mental Health Conditions

A new report released Thursday by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealed that mental health conditions are rare and dehumanized in film and TV. The study is the first of its kind for the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and comes from USC’s Dr. Stacy L. Smith in partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and funded by The David and Lura Lovell Foundation. The study results were discussed Thursday in a panel moderated by Tre’vell Anderson featuring Dr. Smith, Dr. Christine Moutier, Chief Medical Officer, AFSP, Caitlyn Jenner and Gloria Calderon Kellett.

The report, titled “Mental Health Conditions in Film & TV: Portrayals that Dehumanize and Trivialize Characters” gives insight into the often overlooked topic of mental health portrayed via film and TV. The study examined 100 top-grossing films and 50 popular TV series to understand the prevalence and context of mental health conditions in entertainment. Using a purposefully broad definition, the prevalence of mood disorders, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, suicide, autism spectrum disorders, and other conditions were evaluated. Additionally, the elements surrounding these depictions were investigated to understand whether mental health conditions are dehumanized, stigmatized, and/or trivialized in popular media.

The results are quite eye-opening as it was revealed that less than 2% of all film characters and roughly 7% of TV characters experience mental health conditions on screen. This is in contrast to real-life as close to 20% of the U.S. population experiences some form of mental health condition or illness per year. The study dove deeper and found that the majority of portrayals of mental health conditions feature straight, white, adult males providing a lack of intersectionality.Film and TV’s portrayal of mental health obscures the rates that teens and individuals from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds exhibit mental health conditions.

“Entertainment is once again completely out of step with reality,” said Dr. Smith. “The prevalence of mental health conditions among the audience far outpaces the characters they see on screen. This presents a distorted view of the world for those who live and thrive with mental health conditions but never see their stories represented in popular media.”

The lack of representation for mental health gets even bigger with the LGBTQ community. The group was virtually absent when it came to media portrayals of mental health conditions. There were no LGBTQ film characters with a mental health condition across the 100 top films of 2016 and only 8 TV characters across 50 popular shows in 2016 and 2017.  There was only one LGBT character was portrayed with a mental health condition. This absence is alarming as the National Association of Mental Illness indicates that mental health conditions are nearly three times more likely to occur among members of the LGBTQ community.

Addiction seemed to be present in a lot of films (29 characters) and TV (31 characters) while 15 film and 30 TV characters were shown with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders. 18 film and 10 TV characters exhibited mood disorders, and a total of 19 characters across film and TV were depicted dying by suicide, or with suicidal attempts or ideation. Disturbances in thinking affected 8 film characters and 6 TV characters. Seven characters in film and 3 in TV experienced spectrum disorders, while 2 TV characters and 11 film characters evidenced cognitive impairment. Only 2 TV characters were shown with eating disorders.

Nuance and context of the portrayal of mental health conditions were also put in the spotlight, with many characterized by dehumanization and trivialization. Nearly half of film (47%) and 38% of TV characters shown with a mental health condition experienced disparagement. This included verbal or nonverbal rejection, as well as demeaning remarks or behaviors. Words like “crazy,” “freak,” “unstable,” “idiot,” and “psychotic” are examples of terms used to refer to characters with mental health conditions. Humor was a facet of the depiction of half of TV (50%) and 22% of film characters with mental health conditions. Together, these findings reveal that concern is warranted over more than the lack of portrayals—the nature of these depictions is also problematic and features stigmatizing elements related to mental health conditions.

Other factors included in the study violence and suicide and how they were associated with mental health conditions.

“There are significant discrepancies in suicide portrayals in film and television – in reality millions of people actually live through suicidal struggles. The majority of people who experience mental health crises and suicide attempts live through it, find hope and support and don’t go on to die by suicide,” said Dr. Moutier. “Including portrayals of mental health and suicidal experiences in film and television is important in creating a culture that’s smarter around these issues. The real opportunity is in making sure it’s accurate, nuanced and hopeful, and portrays the issues in a way that is safe and responsible for viewers.”

Not everything was doom and gloom with the study. The encouragement of treatment and therapy for mental health was incorporated. Only 5% of film and 9% of TV characters were shown in treatment, while 22% of film characters and 62% of TV characters were shown in or mentioned therapy. Depictions of treatment and different kinds of therapies for mental health conditions offer an important message to audiences that effective treatments are available — so that is a silver lining.

The study also offered strategic tools and solutions for writing more authentic and less dehumanizing depictions are included for use by content creators and other entertainment professionals.

Read the full report here.

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