Issues to consider

Stage & Screen IconNearly half (45%) of the Australian population between the age of 16 and 85 years will experience a mental disorder at some time throughout their life. During any given 12-month period, one in five people will be actively experiencing symptoms of a mental disorder and many more people will be affected indirectly as they provide loved ones such as family, friends and/or work colleagues support throughout that experience1.

As a writer, your audience will include people directly affected by mental illness, as well as people who have limited knowledge of mental illness. When developing a storyline that might include mental illness, you may want to ask yourself…

Why am I introducing mental illness into the story?

  • Is it to explore the issue from a personal perspective or is it just an easy way to resolve a storyline?
  • How will introducing a character with a mental illness impact the storyline? Will it be different for an ongoing character or a guest character?
  • Will my character with mental illness be viewed as credible? Do I have sufficient grasp of the subject matter to do it justice?   

Will my portrayal be fresh and original?

  • Consider the value in talking to people directly affected by mental illness when developing storylines. First hand research will give the story/character both originality and authenticity. See the Story advice and contacts section of this website for more information.
  • Consider the whole human context of the person living with a mental illness, their relationships, work, goals and ambitions. 
  • Exploring the impact on the carers, families, friends, colleagues and others in the community can be powerful.
  • Consider exploring cultural, religious and age diversity in characters. Mental illness is conceptualised, accepted and managed in varied ways across cultures.  

Am I perpetuating stereotypes? 

  • A person with mental illness does not need to be evil, nor does the evil character need to have a mental illness.
  • Someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator.
  • Consider using one or more characters to challenge negative and stereotypical attitudes expressed by another character.   

Will my portrayal of mental illness be truthful?

  • Remember that people can manage and live with their mental illness; it is not ‘traumatic’ every day.
  • Consider exploring a character’s recovery or ongoing management of mental illness. The ‘quick fix’ is not necessarily a reality, especially when the mental illness is given to a time-poor guest character.
  • A resolution does not have to be the ‘cure’ or the ‘death’ of a character with mental illness.
  • Consider balancing a more negative storyline with a more positive or counter-balancing storyline.  

What language will my characters use?

  • Terms such as “schizo”, “psycho”, “mad” and “emo” may reflect the language of a particular group (e.g. young people) but, unchallenged, may cause immediate distress to audience members.
  • Incorrect use of psychiatric labels can misinform and confuse audiences. For example when the word schizophrenia is used to indicate split personality or psychotic is used to refer to psychopathy.
  • Refer to the Facts and Stats  section of this website for a list of psychiatric terms and information about current treatments.  

Can I improve the accuracy and authenticity of my portrayal?

  • Take time to research the details of each mental illness that is portrayed to ensure representations are accurate.
  • Some characteristics associated with mental illness (e.g. twitching) are side effects of treatments rather than the illness itself.
  • Consider the range and type of services and service providers that are portrayed to ensure they are accurate and reflect current trends in treatment approaches. 
  • Check the portrayal of the physical environment of mental health care and treatment facilities is accurate.  

Can the storyline have a positive effect on the audience? 

  • Consider whether there are opportunities to show how people can get effective help. Many people who are experiencing a mental illness do not access support because of the stigma associated with mental illness.  

 Stage & Screen IconIncluding phone numbers and contact details for services at the end of a piece (or as part of the drama) provides immediate support for those who may be prompted to seek assistance. See the Story advice and contacts section of this website for more information.



1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2007: Summary of Results. Catalogue No. 4326.0. Belconnen, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Bureau of Statistics. Accessed February 6, 2013 from$File/43260_2007.pdf