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Film and TV miss the mark in portraying mental health conditions

A new study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative finds popular media underrepresents and misrepresents characters with mental health conditions.

Mental health conditions in film and tv
Depictions of mental illness in popular culture often feature straight, white males and stigmatize or trivialize their mental health conditions, according to a recent study by USC expert Stacy Smith. (Illustration/iStock)

A new USC report reveals that mental health conditions are rare in film and TV: Few characters across popular film and TV series exhibit mental health conditions, and those who do are routinely dehumanized.

The report, “Mental Health Conditions in Film & TV: Portrayals that Dehumanize and Trivialize Characters,” is the first from Associate Professor Stacy L. Smith of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and its Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to investigate the topic.

The study examined 100 top-grossing films and 50 popular TV series to understand the prevalence and context of mental health conditions in entertainment. Using a purposefully broad definition, the prevalence of mood disorders, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, suicide, autism spectrum disorders, and other conditions was evaluated. Additionally, the elements surrounding those depictions were investigated to understand whether mental health conditions are dehumanized, stigmatized or trivialized in popular media.

Fewer than 2% of all film characters and roughly 7% of TV characters experience mental health conditions on screen. In contrast, close to 20% of the U.S. population experiences some form of mental health condition or illness per year. The majority of portrayals also feature straight, white, adult males.

“The prevalence of mental health conditions among the audience far outpaces the characters they see on screen,” Smith said. “This presents a distorted view of the world for those who live and thrive with mental health conditions but never see their stories represented in popular media.”

Also missing: LGBT characters with mental health conditions

One group that is virtually absent from media portrayals of mental health conditions is the LGBT community. There were no LGBT film characters with a mental health condition across the 100 top films of 2016 and only eight TV characters across 50 popular shows in 2016-2017.

To supplement the movie findings, an additional 100 films from 2017 were evaluated. Only one LGBT character was portrayed with a mental health condition. The lack of LGBT characters shown in this capacity is striking, as the National Association of Mental Illness indicates that mental health conditions are nearly three times more likely to occur among members of the LGBTQ community.

The report was conducted in partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and funded by The David and Lura Lovell Foundation.

An extended version of this story appears on the USC Annenberg website.

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Film and TV miss the mark in portraying mental health conditions

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