Hollywood is helping stigma of mental illness fade away

For decades, Hollywood was proficient in its negative portrayal of the symptoms, treatment and individuals living with mental illness. Film, television and other forms of entertainment produced by Hollywood seemed to require extreme dramatization and conflict to keep audiences engaged. Negative story lines and stereotyped characterization of individuals or situations tend to hold audience attention by playing upon their fears.

The mission to dramatize frequently results in an extreme representation of the characters who live with mental-health issues and their behaviors. Over time, these images coalesce, producing a negative effect that has hurt the perception of people living with mental illness.

In recent years, however, Hollywood seems to have realized that the only way to create genuine understanding of the human condition is to portray characters and situations in a more realistic light.
Today, we are seeing more nuance in the type of mental illnesses depicted. Now individuals who live with these issues may be seen as successful, powerful and highly functioning. They hold a more representative variety of professions, careers and education levels. Along with posts in social media about the characters, story lines and situations, public opinion and our perception about mental-health issues have begun to evolve and change.

Also encouraging is the fact that the skewed perception of treatment is shown in a much more positive light. Mental-health treatments are as varied as the individuals who need them. No longer are service options either extreme (electroconvulsive therapy) or overly simplistic (the office visit and couch session). Treatment options range from interventions by family and friends, interactive sessions with therapists, medication management, group sessions, and a variety of contemporary therapies including the use of psycho-education, music, meditation, prayer, physical activities and much more.
This vast and expansive view on treatment options encourages individuals and their family members to view mental health and treatment in a “normal way.” It encourages individuals to find services and treatments that work for them, without the stigma.

These and other changes in the entertainment industry have helped influence public opinion about mental illness. These diverse and modern portrayals of people with mental illness — such as “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Empire” and “House of Cards” — give confidence to those living with it to seek out treatment, look for employment, go to school, build relationships and live as productive members of society.

Changes in the entertainment industry have helped influence public opinion about mental illness.”

Public attitudes appear to be changing, suggesting an increased understanding and tolerance of psychological conditions that historically would have been stigmatized in our society. All of us in the community gain a much better understanding that these are real people managing real issues and are productive members of society.
We have a long way to go in terms of raising awareness of mental-health issues. Nonetheless, Hollywood entertainment offers a great first step as we continue to create a narrative of support to families and friends who live with mental illness. Seeing individuals portrayed as high-performing, successful and productive people offers a much more balanced, realistic view of mental health in our society.
We are still in a time in which many community mental-health services go underfunded — if they are funded at all. Sadly, better funding for these services has yet to fully catch up with evolving public attitudes.

But times are changing. Greater emphasis on funding for public education is essential, not only to support this trend in public awareness, but also to help the community recognize the prudence of adequately funded mental-health programs.


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David R. Stone is CEO of Sound Mental Health, King County’s largest mental-health-services provider.

Juan Cotto is on the Sound Mental Health board of directors.



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