Time for a Rewrite: Mental Health in Primetime

6 years ago

Last year, a study in the UK found 45% of characters on primetime television with mental health issues were written as dangerous or potentially so. This month, the World Health Organization reported 45% of young adults, ages 10-24, struggle with mental health disorders - these numbers aren’t adding up.

From courtroom dramas to reality TV, it’s hard to know how much progress we’re making here in Hollywoodland. Sure, there are organizations working hard, trying to keep writers informed about the labels they attach to fictional characters, but TV is about entertainment not the DSM-IV.

I really like shows like Law and Order, which has received honors for its portrayal of mental health, and yet I saw a repeat episode not too long ago (SPOILER ALERT) where a character called the “bipolar roller” skates around Manhattan and thinks the KGB are after him. The attorneys (“the good guys”) decide to provoke him so he’ll behave in a way that would require him to be forced to take antipsychotic meds in order to get him on the stand. Where he admits to killing a bunch of people.

The BiPolar Roller: Courtesy of NBC

Um, yeah.

How can we help the 45% to understand that they’re going to be OK? That they can live with depression and schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, or whatever their diagnoses may be, and still do all the things they dream of? Primetime dramas aren’t giving them many role models. But is reality TV doing much better?

Entertainment is about what’s funny or dramatic or exciting. Real life doesn’t always fit neatly into those categories. Which is why reality TV is a misnomer. It’s really more like the historical novel. Or fiction memoir. Ideas based on truth but with plenty of room for dramatic flair.

We’re supposed to be gaining a better understanding of mental health through shows like Intervention and Hoarders,but the fact is compulsive behavior like hoarding can’t be cleaned up in an hour. When the cameras leave, things may head back to what they once were. But audiences are only as informed as time slots allow. With commercial breaks.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say they watch these shows because they can’t look away. Like a train wreck. It’s human nature to want to understand how people behave, but we may not be learning much from watching these struggles as they’re edited for our viewing pleasure.

Medical consultants are listed in the end credits of shows all the time, but they’re not doing the actual writing. In a 2010 Newsweek interview, psychologist Richard Kluft, advising on The United States of Tara, a dark comedy about disasociative personality disorder, said “he still winces at some of the depictions” and that Tara’s “more flamboyant alters are typical of only 1 in 20.” Just because these professionals advise doesn’t mean artistic license won’t win out in the final draft.

As writers, we all use a bit of artistic license, some more than others (see Gilligan’s Island). But if we stop to consider the 45%, not to mention the millions of others outside the WHO study, well, perhaps it’s time for change.

I believe strongly in spending time on character development (it's probably my favorite part of writing). And in these situations, we must do it with more responsibility. For the sake of the 45%, let’s try to get the facts right.  Let them know they’re not train wrecks. Let them know that they can be the heroes, the good girls/guys, the happy endings.

But it’s up to audiences as well. What we watch, advertisers want to endorse. If we’re going to support mental health awareness, it’s time we start watching what we believe in, so the 45% can believe in themselves.

What do you think?  What's your take on the portrayal of mental illness in the media?   And how can Hollywood do better?

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