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New research finds watching accurate mental health storylines can improve people’s mental health as Mind launches media guidelines for fictional mental health depictions

Thursday, 12 January 2023 Mind

Soaps and dramas featuring characters with mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and panic attacks are helping people to realise for the first time they may be experiencing a mental health problem.

New research co-commissioned by mental health charity Mind and ITV shows that one in four of us have learnt of our mental health problems from watching a fictional character’s mental health journey on screen. At a time when we are facing a mental health crisis with eight million people on a waiting list for treatment, it’s crucial the media helps raise awareness and provides accurate information about mental health.

  • One in four (25%) of those who had seen a mental health storyline realised they had a mental health problem or had experienced one in the past.
  • After seeing storylines involving characters experiencing a mental health problem, one in five people (18%) felt encouraged to seek help from a medical professional for their mental health.
  • One in three (34%) were inspired to start a conversation about the storyline with friends, family, and colleagues.
  • One in five young people (21%) between 18-24 said that after seeing a mental health storyline in a soap or drama, it led them to speak about their own mental health on social media.
  • Mind launches its first mental health guidelines to improve mental health depictions on screen.

Our research comes as Mind launches its own media guidelines aimed at programme makers and script writers including top tips on how to create responsible and compelling fictional depictions.

With soaps and dramas prompting people to seek help, Mind is urging programme makers to make sure characters’ experiences of mental health problems are as true to life as possible. The research highlights the importance of depicting less well-known mental health problems such as schizophrenia and post-natal depression.

Despite huge improvements in the way we see characters with mental health problems portrayed on screen there is still a long way to go. Mind’s research showed: one in five people still think storylines do not accurately represent people with mental health problems and one in ten people who have seen an inaccurate storyline felt more inclined to ‘hide their existing mental health problems in the future from others’.

Faris Khalifa, 34, Liverpool says: “Out of everything I’ve watched in the past two years, Kotaro Lives Alone had the biggest impact on my mental health. The way the show tackles and openly talks about child abuse and mental health made feel a lot less ashamed of my own abuse. To see me as a four-year-old child, to see that same lasting damage, reminded me I’m not on my own. Even if only for a moment…to learn to be proud of yourself despite it all is a gift. It’s great.”

Monique Sung, 23, from Manchester says: “As a Chinese woman of colour, and queer, it’s important to me that I see people who ‘look’ like me on screen and experience mental health problems and crucially who seek mental health support. Culturally, mental health difficulties are often unspoken of and buried, seeing yourself on screen can be a great way to open discussions and humanise your own experiences. I still feel like there are not enough storylines that positively depict people seeking mental health support and that too often mental health storylines are glamorised.”

Zara, 31, from London speaks about her own experiences of mental health and identity. Zara says:

“Growing up as mixed heritage (Indian and English) had its ups and downs, it still does in fact. Having to navigate society in terms of your ethnic identity is tough, on top of that, having a mental health problem is a further barrier. It has taken a long time to remember that my ethnic identity is not defined by a stranger's perception of my appearance. However, when I see shows and films representing mixed heritage and other minority ethnic communities with mental health issues, I feel seen and heard which is a crucial step forward. Normalising mental health is needed, and the media has the power to start conversations around these taboo topics. Shows such as This Is Us and The Bold Type are good examples; they showcase sensitive portrayals of mental health in relatable environments. I have also recently discovered other shows on Prime such as Four More Shots Please, which raise similar themes in an Indian setting. Things are starting to change however, a lot more work is needed, and diverse content needs to be a permanent feature.”

Melissa, 23, from Wrexham has been diagnosed with Bulimia. Melissa says:  

“Seeing eating disorders portrayed on screen can be difficult to watch. I think content or trigger warnings are important. For me, I think it’s incredibly important to show characters experiencing the early signs of a mental health problem like an eating disorder so that anyone watching can recognise what to look out for – either in themselves or someone around them.

“Some storylines have done an amazing job of raising awareness about eating problems. These portrayals have really helped me and my own experience. Seeing these storylines are close to home for me specifically as I experience Bulimia Nervosa. When I watch mental health storylines with my family I feel half and half. One side can worry that they see the true side of how my bulimia impacts me. But then the other says, that's okay because then my family can see what’s going on and how to help and support me.

"Two examples are Cleo and Imran in Hollyoaks. Watching a character show how they are scared to come to terms with what is happening is very similar to how I felt when I started becoming unwell."

Alex Bushill, Head of Media & PR at Mind says: “It has never been more important for broadcasters to create accurate, sensitive storylines about mental health. Lockdowns and restrictions meant people started watching more TV than ever, and a huge number of us are seeing soaps and dramas featuring mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. These stories help people recognise when they might be experiencing a mental health problem themselves and prompt them to seek help.

“It’s clear from this research that mental health storylines are popular, and broadcasters continue to be committed to making them. We now need to see more airtime given to conditions such as schizophrenia, psychosis and post-natal depression which are still stigmatised and poorly understood.”

Susie Braun, Director of Social Purpose at ITV, says: "Television has the power to both reflect and shape culture and this survey reflects that. It has played a huge role in changing attitudes towards mental health over the past few years. We're proud that ITV's coverage and storylines have been a part of that changing story, alongside behaviour change campaigns like ITV's Britain Get Talking, developed in partnership with Mind, YoungMinds and SAMH."

Download and read Mind’s Media Guidelines here

If you're working on a programme or mental health storyline contact Mind's Media Advisory service at [email protected] 

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