Lights, Camera, Action: Media Can Help Shape a Positive Image for Mental Illness

Of course, we know that there is added drama in the dramas we watch, but they still shape us. We have ideas about how our first kiss should feel and how high school should not. We are amateur crime solvers and judge vicariously through the juries on our favorite trial court shows.

Why does this matter? According to a research study published by Wahl (2004) many people get their information about mental illness from the media. Unfortunately, the picture portrayed isn’t always accurate. And the facts are important when we consider that mental illness is common and treatable, but that many people don’t seek help because they are afraid of what others will think and how it will impact their social and work life.

The good news is that much change has already taken place. One example is the annual PRISM Awards Program, sponsored by the Entertainment Industries Council, which was created to recognize TV shows, movies and music delivering accurate images and storylines addressing mental health and substance use. Some recent nominations included Denzel Washington for his portrayal of a pilot with alcohol addiction in Flight; the documentary Outside the Lines: McMahon’s State of Mind for its coverage of the harmful physical and mental results from concussions suffered by professional football players; and the Oscar-worthy performances of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook for their realistic portrayal of the challenges two people living with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder face on a day-to-day basis.

Casting New Characters and Storylines

Mental illness is more common and adaptable than we think.

In fact, it impacts 1 in 4 adults in San Diego County and around the country. And people with mental illness are not just brilliant scientists and musicians (e.g., as portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, Jamie Foxx in The Soloist and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting), but regular people, our neighbors and co-workers.

For example, NBC’s Parenthood features a teenage boy, Max, diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. In a storyline in which he runs for class president, Max describes his peculiar behavior (a dislike for shaking hands and making direct eye contact) as some of the characteristics of the disorder, but also lets others know that what may seem like limitations are actually strengths that have helped him follow through with the plans he has set out for himself.

Help is available and treatment is effective.

People experiencing mental illness, whether they are experiencing depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia, need to get help to get better. Treatment is effective, and more so with support from friends and family.

In the series Elementary on CBS, Sherlock Holmes, the main character, is supported by a sober companion and an AA sponsor who encourage and support him in his recovery. In Homeland (Showtime), a CIA agent diagnosed with bipolar disorder seeks treatment and returns home to be taken care of by her father and sister after being dismissed from her job. Though she is reluctant at first, her family convinces her to accept her diagnosis and comply with her treatment and eventually she is offered her job back.

It is okay to talk about mental health.

Shows and movies can inspire our curiosity in more ways than one. Showing us that it is OK to talk about mental illness by openly sharing it with millions of viewers is a great step in the right direction.

One example is the documentary A New State of Mind: Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness, narrated by Glenn Close. It aired on PBS stations throughout California and encouraged Californians to talk openly about mental illness.

What can you do?

Examine your own biases. When you watch depictions of mental illness, ask yourself: Why do you think people with a mental illness are portrayed like that? Does it mesh with your own views? Is it accurate? Do you know anyone with a mental illness who is like that? Read up and check the facts at or

For more information about the PRISM awards visit: