Raising Mental Health Awareness Through Films and TV Shows

Alex Hellebaut / © Culture Trip
Alex Hellebaut / © Culture Trip
Photo of Cassam Looch
Film Editor10 October 2018

The representation of mental health on screen has been the source of great conversation in recent years. Films and TV shows rarely shy away from the subject, but how characters suffering from depression, anxiety and other disorders are represented is coming under greater scrutiny.

Hollywood’s depiction of characters with mental health problems has oft been criticised for being lazy and clichéd. This was expertly parodied in the 2008’s Tropic Thunder,which centred around a cast of actors making an action film in the jungle.

In the movie, Ben Stiller plays fictional actor Tugg Speedman, a man so desperate for serious recognition he cynically puts himself forward to play ‘Simple Jack’ – a character with learning disabilities – which he sees as the quickest route to an Oscar.

The film takes a satirical swipe at the decades-long Hollywood practice of using mental health as a way of gaining traction with voters during awards season, and drew criticism from various protest groups for the use of the term ‘retard’. The wider issue, how mental health is depicted on screen, and how it is often used as a short-hand for characterisation, was also discussed at the time.

Alex Hellebaut / | © Culture Trip

Dan Warrender and Scott Macpherson, founders of a Scottish University initiative called Mental Health Movie Monthly (MHMM), are looking to change the conversation around film and mental health for the better.

“Historically, portrayals of mental illness in film have tended towards the negative and there is concern that stereotypes and stigma can be reinforced by inaccurate or insensitive portrayals of mental health issues in film.”

To counter this, the pair started their monthly film screenings in 2016.

“[MHMM] brings together university staff and students with the wider public, and uses film as a platform into discussions about mental health. Our mission statement is to provide free monthly film showings, allowing an inclusive safe space where people can discuss mental health and human experience as equals”, Warrender says.

This wider conversation has grown with greater effort being made to fairly represent various disabilities on screen. Films and TV shows have the ability to bring these issues to wider audiences, however still have to do so under the guise of entertainment.

As part of the mental health nursing department at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, Warrender and Macpherson chose film for a very particular reason. “It is an accessible medium which is embedded in our culture, and it provides rich seeds of discussion.”

Last year 13 Reasons Why was screened on Netflix and gained praise and criticism in almost equal measure for its depiction of teen angst, depression and suicide. There’s no denying that the series raised awareness of the issues, but how it did so is still being dissected today.

“Mental health is still largely taboo, and we hope that through our film showings and resulting discussions, we make it okay to have these conversations. Our grand aim is that by encouraging people to talk about mental health in a once-removed way, we increase the likelihood that people will speak openly about their own mental health,” Warrender and Macpherson add.

Wez Merchant, who runs a successful film PR company and has also launched the app MyFilmClub, reveals his own experiences within the industry, having been diagnosed with a neurological condition some years ago.

“Leading from experience, I actively encourage my staff to enjoy work responsibly, but also make sure they leave on time and have their own lives outside of work. I still get stressed of course, especially running two business in the centre of London (with ridiculous costs) but now I have learned mechanisms to help me cope,” he says.

Alex Hellebaut / | © Culture Trip

On the wider issue of how the entertainment industry represents mental health on screen, Merchant has some positive thoughts.

“I personally love watching films and documentaries about true life stories. There is a lot to learn from other people and it is vital for people to do so. I had a spate of watching the stories of Janis Joplin, Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, 13th, The Man From Mo’Wax and learning of their journeys from where they were, to where they ended up. Stories like these are educational for us all; these people who seemingly had everything on the outside were troubled by demons and chaos internally, just as I had been. People don’t generally listen to an average Joe or Jane but are more inclined to listen to those with influence.”

Using his own professional and personal experiences, Merchant has created a popular app that is aiming to help people through the power of film.

“I made this [MyFilmClub app] as a byproduct of my own issues and isolation. I pulled my knowledge of mental health together alongside my industry knowledge, and worked to fill this void for others. People can create ‘clubs’. They could be local clubs, favourite film clubs or even the ‘I don’t like any film’ club.”

For his part, Macpherson also points to science for further reasoning why film has an important role to play in enhancing the conversation around mental health.

“There is evidence that film can be a useful tool in learning about mental health and mental illness. Some recent research has explored the use of film for teaching health professional students about mental health and illness, while others have explored its use with patients as an aid to therapy. There is also a growing evidence that film can help to stimulate discussion on topics that people with mental health problems might otherwise find difficult to broach.”

Further information:

Film & Television Charity: 24hr, 7 day a week support line which is available to all. Whether it be issues with mental health, bullying or debt (0800 054 000)

MyFilmClub app (Download FREE on iTunes and Google Play)

Dan Warrender and Scott Macpherson are lecturers in Mental Health Nursing at Robert Gordon University. Mental Health Movie Monthly screenings can be accessed via the organisation’s Facebook page.

London’s Regent Street Cinema also has the Psychology at the Movies season, where psychologists at the University of Westminster dissect and discuss films with psychological concepts and themes.

Wednesday 10 October is World Mental Health Day. To highlight this, Culture Trip is looking at how different societies are shining a light on this important issue in innovative and alternative ways.

The content of this article is provided for general information only and is not an attempt to practise medicine or give specific medical advice, including, without limitation, advice concerning the topic of mental health. The information contained in this article is for the sole purpose of being informative and is not to be considered complete, and does not cover all issues related to mental health. Moreover, this information should not replace consultation with your doctor or other qualified mental health providers and/or specialists. If you believe you or another individual is suffering a mental health crisis or other medical emergency, please seek medical attention immediately.

If you are experiencing mental health issues, in the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. Please note there are no affiliations of any kind between the aforementioned organisations and Culture Trip.

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