Portraying mental ill-health on stage and screen

Film, television and theatre may exert a powerful influence on community attitudes towards mental ill-health due to their broad reach and appeal.

As such, collaboration between the mental health sector and the film, television and theatre industries may provide the potential for positive portrayals that entertain and inform the audience, as well as countering negative portrayals of mental illness and mental health problems.

When handled well, storylines involving mental ill-health provide an opportunity for sensitive, engaging and powerful material.

However, when handled poorly, storylines can have harmful effects, perpetuating the stigma associated with mental ill-health and reducing the likelihood that those with mental ill-health will seek appropriate help.

There are a range of factors for those in the stage and screen industry to consider when considering production or development of creative works, which touch on mental ill-health.


Audience Impact

Film and drama have an important role in informing and influencing community attitudes about people who experience mental health issues. Research has demonstrated a link between negative portrayals of mental illness in the mass media (including film and drama) and negative beliefs among members of the community. Public attitudes to people with a mental illness contribute to the stigma associated with mental illness.

A survey conducted by SANE Australia (2005) found that 76% of consumers and carers experience stigma at least every few months. Stigma can lead to discrimination in areas such as housing, study and employment. It may also prevent people from seeking help, resulting in untreated illness and possibly contributing to suicidal thinking and behaviour.

While depictions of mental illness that perpetuate stereotypes can lead to negative community attitudes, authentic and truthful portrayals have the potential to increase understanding of mental health issues in the general community and decrease the stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with mental illness.

In preparing to write a story involving mental illness, it is useful to have an understanding of the potential impact of such portrayals.


Issues to consider

It is important to consider that audiences of productions and bodies of work that discuss and portray mental ill-health will include people directly affected by mental illness as well as people who have limited knowledge of mental ill-health.

When developing a story line that might include mental ill-health, you may want to ask yourself:

  1. Why am I introducing mental ill-health into the story?
    Is it to explore the issue from a personal perspective or is it just an easy way to resolve a story line? Consider the whole human context of the person living with the illness, their relationships, work, goals and ambitions. Exploring the impact on the carers, families, friends, colleagues and others in the community can be powerful.
  2. How will introducing a character with mental ill-health impact the story line? Consider the way mental ill-health is conceptualised, accepted and managed in varied ways across cultures.
  3. Will it be different for an ongoing character or a guest character?
  4. Will my character with mental ill-health be viewed as credible?
  5. Do I have sufficient grasp of the subject matter to do it justice? Consider exploring cultural, religious and age diversity in characters.
  6. Will my portrayal be fresh and original? Consider the value in talking to people directly affected by mental ill-health when developing story lines. First hand research will give the story/character both originality and authenticity.
  7. Am I perpetuating stereotypes? A person with a mental illness does not need to be evil, nor does the evil character need to have a mental illness. Someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator. Consider using one or more characters to challenge negative and stereotypical attitudes expressed by another character.
  8. Will my portrayal of mental ill-health be truthful? Remember that people can manage and live with mental ill-health; it is not ‘traumatic’ every day. Consider exploring a character’s recovery or ongoing management of their particular illness. A resolution do-health. Consider balancing a more negative storyline with a more positive or counter-balancing storyline.
  9. What language will my characters use? Terms such as “schizo”, “psycho”, “mad” and “emo” may reflect the language of a particular group (e.g. young people) but, unchallenged, may cause immediate distress to audience members. Incorrect use of psychiatric labels can misinform and confuse audiences. For example when the word schizophrenia is used to indicate split personality or psychotic is used to refer to psychopathy.
  10. Can I improve the accuracy and authenticity of my portrayal? Take time to research the details of each mental illness that is portrayed to ensure representations are accurate. Consider the range and type of services and service providers that are portrayed to ensure they are accurate and reflect current trends in treatment approaches. Check the portrayal of the physical environment of mental health care and treatment facilities is accurate.
  11. Can the storyline have a positive effect on the audience? Consider whether there are opportunities to show how people can get effective help. Many people who are experience mental ill-health do not access support because of the stigma associated.
  12. Have I included relevant help-seeking information and details? Ensure help-seeking information and support organisations details are available to audiences, whether verbal or written.