De­pic­tions of men­tal ill­ness af­fect stigma

Kingston Whig-Standard - - OPINION - CRAIG and MARC KIELBURGER

Thrash­ing and scream­ing, a girl is hauled away by or­der­lies in white coats. Nurses fol­low, seda­tive nee­dles ready. Watch­ing this scene in the film

In­ter­rupted, Emily Ni­cholas Angl won­dered, “Will that be me?”

As a young woman, Ni­cholas Angl grap­pled with se­vere de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. In TV shows and films she saw only stereo­types and ex­treme cases, straight­jack­ets and asy­lums. She has long since over­come her chal­lenges, but still re­mem­bers the fear that me­dia clichés pro­voked.

The Net­flix se­ries 13 Rea­sons Why has sparked an in­ter­na­tional con­tro­versy for its de­pic­tion of teen sui­cide. But the hit drama has be­come a scape­goat for an en­tire in­dus­try that, ex­perts say, could do bet­ter in its de­pic­tions of men­tal ill­ness. Hugely in­flu­en­tial, es­pe­cially for youth, en­ter­tain­ment me­dia has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to treat po­ten­tially harm­ful top­ics with sen­si­tiv­ity.

The flurry of pub­lic at­ten­tion around is a chance to ex­am­ine how en­ter­tain­ment me­dia more ac­cu­rately can rep­re­sent men­tal health is­sues.

“The big­gest prob­lem fac­ing peo­ple with men­tal health chal­lenges is stigma. The big­gest fuel for stigma is me­dia por­trayal,” says Bill Lichtenstein, a Bos­ton-based pro­ducer of award-win­ning ra­dio, TV and film doc­u­men­taries about men­tal ill­ness.

He says fic­tional por­tray­als can re­duce stigma by avoid­ing ex­treme stereo­types in favour of char­ac­ters liv­ing with men­tal ill­ness, but not de­fined by it. Lichtenstein points to the drama

whose char­ac­ter Car­rie Mathi­son copes with bipo­lar dis­or­der, but re­mains a com­pe­tent CIA agent.

Sui­cide makes for dra­matic tele­vi­sion, but view­ers should know it’s not the only out­come.

Char­ac­ters, like real peo­ple, can get help and suc­cess­fully over­come men­tal ill­ness, says Lichtenstein. A pos­i­tive out­come on TV of­fers en­cour­age­ment to those cop­ing with men­tal ill­ness in real life.

This is es­pe­cially crit­i­cal for young peo­ple, says Ni­cholas Angl, now di­rec­tor of health en­gage­ment and com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Toronto-based Re­frame Health Labs.

“Most young peo­ple don’t have the life ex­pe­ri­ence to look back and re­mem­ber a time when things got bet­ter,” she says.

Youth first look to other sources, like their favourite movie, to learn about re­cov­ery and re­silience.

Ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion and re­sources are also nec­es­sary. “En­ter­tain­ment by it­self is not enough. It has to be paired with lit­er­acy,” says Dal­housie Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and youth men­tal health ex­pert Stan Kutcher.

Shows or films that want to stoke pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions can run help-line num­bers and web links at the end of pro­grams.

A long-run­ning se­ries could de­velop their own mi­cro-site to of­fer ex­pert ad­vice for par­ents to talk to chil­dren.

The pro­duc­ers of 13 Rea­sons Why cre­ated Be­hind the Rea­sons,a com­pan­ion doc­u­men­tary fea­tur­ing the cast and men­tal health ex­perts dis­cussing the is­sues raised in the se­ries.

Fi­nally, our sources sug­gest think­ing be­yond ex­pert con­sul­ta­tions.

Pro­duc­ers should en­gage with peo­ple who have lived with men­tal ill­ness, or or­ga­ni­za­tions that work with them, to cre­ate more au­then­tic char­ac­ters and de­liver health­ier mes­sages.

In the past, en­ter­tain­ment me­dia has played a pow­er­ful role in driv­ing so­cial progress, on is­sues from AIDS to gay rights. It can help break the stigma sur­round­ing men­tal ill­ness.

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