Changing perceptions: TV and mental health

Natalie Chigariro on changing the image of mental health in TV

Natalie Chigariro
29th October 2018
Credit: youtube


Content warning: rape, suicide

Historically, television has broadly categorised individuals with mental illnesses as pitiful, dangerous or comical and thus led to a viewing culture in which we feel sorry for, fear or laugh at such characters. Perpetuating stigma can prevent individuals from seeking help and therefore needlessly exacerbate their struggles.

The significance of television in shaping attitudes towards mental health cannot be underestimated, as evidenced by the impact of recent Coronation Street storylines. Following the episode exploring the rape of David Platt, the charity Male Survivors saw a 1700% surge in phone calls from those in similar situations asking for help. Similarly, the suicide prevention charity, Papyrus, had its “busiest day ever” following the soap’s gut-wrenching coverage of Aidan Connor’s suicide. Sensitive depictions of mental health struggles that strike a chord with viewers are not only important but necessary. With suicide being the greatest killer of men under 45 in the UK, it is vital that TV executives accurately present these stories as they literally have the power to save lives.

It is not difficult to fathom how the typical trajectories of grief and sadness can spiral into depression or how a series of cumulative trauma can manifest as PTSD or generalised anxiety. As such, mood disorders are more favourably presented in mainstream media as they are regarded as extremes of what would otherwise be typical emotions. However, this isn’t always the case for psychotic conditions – individuals with schizophrenia in particular are constantly vilified.

Netflix’s new retro-futuristic series, Maniac, is offering a long overdue alternative narrative of schizophrenia. It is set within a testing facility for a new trial drug, where Owen (played by Jonah Hill) and Annie (played by Emma Stone) develop a curious friendship. Owen is the antithesis of the knife-wielding, feral schizophrenic often caricatured in television. He is a quiet, reserved man desperately trying to discern reality from his delusions. This is particularly poignant in the second episode when he gently prods Annie’s shoulder: a small gesture that vividly highlights the affliction of existing in a state where you are constantly second-guessing your own mind. Hill’s portrayal of the condition often makes viewers feel with, rather than for, Owen. In the absence of lived experience, empathy is crucial for driving forward understanding of the idiosyncrasies of mental health conditions.

The success of these and other shows, such as the Emmy-nominated My Mad Fat Diary, are testament to audiences’ hunger for authentic and relatable portrayals of mental illness in the mainstream. Channel 4 is currently producing a six-part series called Pure, retelling the story of a woman whose OCD consists solely of distressing intrusive thoughts. The show will be vital in reframing understanding of the condition as it is often ridiculed, with the term being misappropriated to be synonymous with excessive tidiness.

Though slow, it is clear that progress is being made to prioritise honest, true-to-life storytelling of mental health conditions instead of dramatic and exaggerated characterisations that are damaging to both individuals experiencing them and to society as a whole.

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