Audience impact

Stage & Screen IconFilm and drama have an important role in informing and influencing community attitudes about people who experience mental health issues. Research has demonstrated a link between negative portrayals of mental illness in the mass media (including film and drama), and negative beliefs among members of the community. Public attitudes to people with a mental illness contribute to the stigma associated with mental illness. A survey conducted by SANE Australia (2005) found that 76% of consumers and carers experience stigma at least every few months. Stigma can lead to discrimination in areas such as housing, study and employment. It may also prevent people from seeking help; resulting in untreated illness and possibly contributing to suicidal thinking and behaviour.

While depictions of mental illness that perpetuate stereotypes can lead to negative community attitudes, authentic and truthful portrayals have the potential to increase understanding of mental health issues in the general community and decrease the stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with mental illness.

In preparing to write a story involving mental illness, it is useful to have an understanding of the potential impact of such portrayals.


Summary of evidence regarding the impact of different types of portrayals of mental illness

People living with a mental illness and their families report that:

  • They experience stigma regularly and the effects of stigma are often more distressing than the symptoms of the illness;
  • Less stigma is the number one thing that would make their lives better; and
  • Negative or stereotyped depictions of mental illness make life more difficult for them.

People with mental illness have also made suggestions about ways to improve portrayals of mental illness:

  • Researching for accuracy;
  • Directing viewers how to get help;
  • Showing well rounded and factual portrayals; and
  • Using appropriate language.

Research has revealed that people living with a mental illness are often inaccurately portrayed as:

  • Having a violent or aggressive nature;
  • Being eccentric, seductive, self-obsessive,
  • Objects for scientific observation; or
  • Simpletons.

A skewed picture of mental health treatment is often presented, emphasising the more dramatic psychotherapy and Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) rather than more common forms of treatment such as medication. Alternatively, the impression can be given that all treatments are ineffective and instead love will conquer all.

Mental health professionals are variously portrayed as incompetent, sinister, unrealistically selfless or seductive (in the case of women), or only to be proved wrong as the plot unfolds. 


Evidence and research

More factual information can be obtained from the evidence and research section for stage and screen on this website.