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Better Practices for Mental Health Portrayals

Got a project containing sensitive themes or subject matter?

Feeling unsure about how to support your team and audience?

This guide is for you!

By following our recommendations for these interventions, you’ll be enhancing your performance and production quality while lessening the negative impact on your cast, crew, and viewers. We’ve found the use of these supports not only provides for more accurate, authentic, and meaningful storytelling but also increases the efficiency of production.

  • Always disclose the content fully, specifically, and at the beginning of any process.​ You might refer to a content note guide (available from AMHC), or work with another professional to do this.

  • Be authentic to ethical and accurate representation as outlined by mental health professionals, medical professionals, and those with lived experience. Avoid relying on damaging stereotypes and depictions instead of seeking authenticity.

    • Don’t fall for the “generally crazy” tropes: do your research! Reach out to advocacy organizations and those doing work with portrayed experiences. They are a great resource. 

  • Assume that there is lived experience in the room, and treat the material with respect, dignity, and care. Choose language intentionally both on and off camera: from call sheets to final cuts. 

    • For example, doing your research beforehand and presenting appropriate language to the creative team will help avoid titling scenes, “the crazy scene”, or labeling a shot list with “Character goes psycho”. 

  • Integrate care & support across the project from start to finish.  Using access surveys, concern navigation pathways, adequate break times, and disclosing rehearsal or shooting content are just some of the ways to integrate care and support across the process. 

  • Allocate more time for scenes that depict challenging material: this will alleviate some of the pressure in crafting these stories. 

  • Finally: we invite you to consider prescriptive behaviors: Research shows that more than one in four Americans has a mental illness (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2019), meaning one in four of us (our audience and our creative team) might be extra vulnerable to prescriptive behaviors. Prescriptive behaviors mean that someone experiences depiction of risky or harmful behavior in a specific way that psychologically primes them to engage in that behavior and/or thinking pattern. For example, systematic reviews have found overwhelming evidence that portrayal of suicidal behaviour in the media may have potentially facilitate suicidal acts by people exposed to said media (Hawton, 2002).   Fortunately, prescriptive behaviors can also be a force for good! Prescriptive behaviors can also help people understand how to seek help, use coping skills, or talk to loved ones about their experiences (Niederkrotenthaler et al. 2010). For example, when working on a project which includes depiction of an Eating Disorder, consider showing characters asking for help, engaging in treatment, and recovering. Research shows viewers can learn about their own capacity for healing by observing others’ journey. Your project could be an opportunity for so much good when you consider prescriptive behaviors that support health and wellbeing.

Curious about bringing on some professional support? Get in touch by clicking below!

better practices for portrayal mental health coordinator

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