How TV has brought mental health issues into the light – and helped to banish stigma

Brain 201

Brain exercising (Tumisu, 2017)

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author:  Murali Doraiswamy, Professor, Duke University Health System & Dan ArielyDirector, The Center for Advanced Hindsight, Duke University

Chances are you know someone with depression; it affects some 300 million people around the world and suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teens in many Western and Asian nations. But the odds are also good that you have a friend or family member who is struggling in silence, hiding their illness due to the stigma around mental illness.

What if something as simple as a soap opera or popular Netflix series could help educate the public about depression, ease the stigma surrounding the illness, and lead to more people getting treated?

While a mental health focused advertisement or documentary may be easy to simply click past with your remote, you’re less likely to ignore the messages in your favourite TV dramas.

In shows watched day after day or week after week — like a Netflix or Tencent Video or BBC serial — people tend to begin identifying with characters. With this sense of familiarity comes the opportunity for larger emotional impact. Indeed, social psychology has taught us, from the similarity attraction effect, that characters most similar to ourselves are those that we’ll be most likely to be attracted to — and therefore relate to and learn from.

In 1975, Mexican television writer Miguel Sabido, a pioneer of entertainment education, created the telenovela Ven Conmigo (Come with Me) with a storyline around adults enrolled in a literacy class. Subsequently, enrollment in such programmes jumped ninefold. Similarly, episodes of a popular soap opera in Tanzania led to measurable changes in beliefs and attitudes about HIV transmission, safe sex and family planning. And an Indian show, Hum Log, addressed social issues like the empowerment of women, dowry and alcoholism and provided viewers with information on how to get help through local clinics.

Could a television soap operas or popular Netflix serial change the stigma of depression?

The good news is that characters with mental illness are moving from the fringes to the centre of television plot lines. For example, US spy drama Homeland won praise for its empathetic depiction of bipolar disorder in its lead protagonist – intelligence officer Carrie Mathison – but spiced up the plot to show that she could heighten her intuition by stopping her medication.

Making the subject accurate as well as entertaining requires a production team who are inspired to do this for the right reasons. A new Australian reality show, How Mad Are You, depicts the surprisingly fine line between being well and being mentally ill, and shows that it is possible for programmes about this subject to be realistic and entertaining.

The stigma of mental illness has been called the last great stigma of the 20th century. Shows that portray mental illness in an accurate and sensitive manner offer great power to change societal perceptions. And that’s worth as much as any Emmy or Oscar.

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