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New research finds an increase in positive portrayals of mental health on TV

A new study by the USC Norman Lear Center, in collaboration with SHOWTIME/MTV Entertainment Studios, reveals the significant role entertainment plays in shaping knowledge, public perception, and behaviors related to mental health. Shifting Minds: Understanding the Development, Representation, and Impact of Mental Health Storylines in Entertainment underscores the power of accurate and nuanced portrayals of mental health in reducing stigma and encouraging help-seeking behaviors.

Through interviews with writers and mental health experts, the Norman Lear Center took a look into the creative process around developing mental health storylines. They identified trends in mental health storytelling through an analysis of TV and film scripts, and examined how audiences were impacted by 13 TV storylines that aligned with storytelling best practices or informed by experts. 

This audience impact study included Basketball Wives (VH1), Bel-Air (Peacock), The Chi (Showtime), Clone High (MAX), Couples Therapy (Showtime), MTV’s Following: Bretman Rock (YouTube), Siesta Key (MTV), The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans (Paramount+), The Summer I Turned Pretty (Prime Video), Teen Mom: The Next Chapter (MTV), UnPrisoned (Hulu and Onyx Collective), Wolf Pack (Paramount+), and The Young and the Restless (CBS).

New research finds an increase in positive portrayals of mental health on TV.

The research team found:

Increased Emphasis on Responsible Storytelling: Content creators and industry professionals pointed to an industry-wide shift toward more inclusive and responsible portrayals of mental health. Interviews underlined the importance of robust access to accurate, specific, and culturally sensitive resources to support nuanced storytelling.

Expanded and Improved Mental Health Representation: Using their Script Database, the Norman Lear Center analyzed the frequency of mental health keywords in TV and film scripts from the period before and after the launch of the Mental Health Media Guide in 2021. The research shows a 39% increase in mentions of mental health keywords, as well as a 15% decrease in derogatory language, suggesting a shift toward more respectful and nuanced discussions of mental health. 

Positive Audience Impact: Viewers of mental health storylines that followed best practices, or were informed by experts and those with lived experience, had greater knowledge of mental health topics, reduced stigma toward those receiving treatment, and greater willingness to seek help. Viewers indicated a higher likelihood of pursuing a number of mental health actions including therapy, support groups, reaching out to a friend, and breathwork.

Character Depth and Relatability: Feelings of friendship with TV characters contributed to reduced stigma and willingness to seek help. This was true even with complex characters who had a mix of positive and negative traits.

Recommendations for entertainment creatives based on the research include

  • Showcasing a diverse range of characters facing mental health challenges and receiving support from their communities.
  • Realistically depicting the process of seeking mental health support and addressing common barriers.
  • Normalizing conversations about mental health and highlighting systemic supports, such as workplace policies.
  • Taking advantage of resources, such as mental health experts and individuals with lived experiences, to develop authentic stories. The Mental Health Media Guide and organizations like the Lear Center’s Hollywood, Health & Society program can provide a range of services.

“This research validates what we as storytellers have always known: authentic and nuanced storytelling has the power to drive meaningful societal change,” said Nina L. Diaz, president of content and chief creative officer, SHOWTIME/MTV Entertainment Studios and Paramount Media Network. “The Mental Health Storytelling Initiative is empowering creators across all genres to elevate storylines that reflect the full mental health experience, and the results are clear: it’s not simply resonating with audiences, it’s making a difference in their perceptions, reducing stigma and encouraging them to take steps to support their own mental health and that of those around them.”

“This research highlights a dramatic shift in mental health storytelling, away from stigmatizing language and toward more nuanced discussions of specific conditions and treatment options,” said Erica Rosenthal, director of research at the USC Norman Lear Center. “When viewers see their favorite TV characters seeking help or supporting friends who are struggling, we find they are more likely to take these steps themselves.”

Launched in 2021 with support from SHOWTIME / MTV Entertainment Studios and housed at the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the Mental Health Storytelling Initiative harnesses the power of storytelling to change the narrative on mental health. The initiative is powered by the Mental Health Storytelling Coalition, an unprecedented multi-sector partnership between more than 70 leading entertainment industry partners and mental health expert organizations. The Initiative will build on new research and insights to support a broader range of storytellers and topics — including portrayals of kids’ mental health, digital creators, and global storytellers.