A new study finds that people with mental health conditions are rarely portrayed in Hollywood’s most famous films and that their portrayal “remains one of predominantly white, masculine, and functional characters.”
The report, from Dr. Stacey Smith and USC Annenberg Inclusion, found that of the 4,502 speaking or named characters across the 200 highest-grossing films of 2019, only 1.5% were depicted with mental health conditions, which is down from 1.7% in 2016. By contrast, 21% of adults in the United States have a mental illness, according to national population research studies such as the US National Comorbidity Survey.
“Stories can open a window into different worlds and experiences, but the results of this study show that mental health is rarely a focal point in popular films,” Smith said. “With the growing need for mental health care in the United States, and continuing concern about well-being, storytellers and creators are missing out on important opportunities to educate the masses.”
More than half of the films included in the last report did not feature a single character suffering from a psychological condition, and 30% of them had only one character. The report, titled “Mental Health Conditions Across 200 Popular Films,” noted that of those characters portrayed with a mental health condition, 59.2% were male and three-quarters were white. Only 16 were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, only two were LGBTQ, and 42.3% had a disability.
The seven different mental health conditions depicted in the 200 highest-grossing films of 2019 included addiction, anxiety/PTSD, depression/mood disorders, suicide, major thinking disorders, cognitive impairment, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. There were more forms of anxiety/PTSD in 2019 than in 2016, while cognitive impairment and spectrum disorders decreased, with the remaining mental health conditions remaining consistent with 2016.
“The portrayal of mental health in film has a powerful role to play especially during this time of a global mental health crisis,” said Dr. Kristen U Motter, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Entertainment educates the public, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Because humans are deeply connected to social contact and imitation, contagion can occur with harmful or positive effects. Images cannot remove the stigma and stop the perpetuation of dangerous metaphors for people with mental health conditions. Not only can it deepen mental health literacy and bring hope. All people are mentally healthy, and now more than ever, Americans yearn for information and resources to allow us not only to cope, but to thrive and support the mental health of others.”
The report also found that movie characters with mental illness are often ridiculed. Nearly three-quarters have experienced some form of belittling it, with 45.1% having experienced ridicule specifically about their mental health, and more than 40% having experienced jokes or humor related to their mental health, up from 22% in 2016.
“The confluence of these contextual factors means that when mental health is shown in a movie, it is often stigmatized or insulted,” Smith said. “For the masses, the nature of mental health images may increase the potential for negative effects when it comes to real-world outcomes.”
Personalities with mental health conditions were most often associated with violence: 63.4% were perpetrators of violence, up from 46% in 2016, and 66.2% were victims of violence. Over a third (38%) died at some point in the film, including murder or suicide, and 59.3% died by violent means, including 22.2% who died by suicide.
Only 29.6% of NPCs with a mental health condition were shown to be treated, including individual appointments, group therapy, addiction, support, and inpatient care, while only 12.7% were shown to receive medication or other treatments. Movies in 2019 showed more characters receiving treatment and medication or other treatments than in 2016.
With solutions in mind, the initiative brought Jay Shetty, bestselling author and on purpose Podcast host, is on board to serve as a lead well-being consultant, serving as a resource for the program and the entertainment industry in general on mental health and well-being issues, and strategizing for new ways to engage with the topic on screen and in groups to work for positive change.
“My passion has always been to bridge the gap between mental health and entertainment,” Shetty said. “Getting that the initiative should further explore these important issues on screen and on sets and bring about real systemic change within the industry is what excites me the most.”
Building on the Mental Health Media Handbook, the initiative says it provides a “blueprint for mental health policy that can be adopted by production companies, studios, and other groups. This policy identifies ways in which creative talent, executives, and production supervisors can tell true stories, and provide opportunities to promote health mental health of production workers, and providing audiences with more information about mental health.”