The Missing Story: New Ways to Talk About Mental Health

Some of the most successful storylines of recent years have had mental health at their heart -- from Emmerdale tackling postnatal depression to the award-winning comedy Alma's Not Normal. The Centre for Mental Health has praised the increasing ambition around mental health in entertainment and the media. But despite the rising profile of mental health in entertainment storylines, there are still opportunities for content creators to incorporate overlooked or misrepresented aspects into their stories.

 At the ‘Beyond Talking: What’s Next in Mental Health’ panel at the OKRE Summit 2022, Kate Martin, Head of Lived Experience at Wellcome Trust, Alex Bushill, Head of Media and PR at Mind, BAFTA Award-nominated director and writer Stewart Kyasmire, and Playtra Games’ founder, Dan Bernardo, discussed what is currently missing from our screens. What stories are not being told and what would they like to see depicted in entertainment going forward?

Depictions of recovery

‘We don’t really see depictions of recovery, which is important,’ says Alex Bushill. While most stories will showcase a character unravelling and their consequent journey toward seeking help, he says there aren’t enough stories that showcase what comes after this moment of crisis. Rather, there is a stereotype that often shows mental health victims as hopeless with little hope of recovering.

‘There are countless examples of media to this day which have their heart in the right place, they’re trying to explore ideas around trauma and recovery… and they just return to that trope,’ states Bushill.

The danger, notes Bushill, lies in sometimes thinking that there is a tension between dramatic impact and something that is responsible and accurate. Often, including the whole story of a character’s journey through mental health and being able to portray their recovery can create more authentic, engaging stories.

Put the straitjackets away

We are at a time when understanding of what treatment can be offered to those with mental health issues is at an all-time high. The media and the entertainment industry has scope to reflect these vast changes through the representations on our screens.

Both Martin and Bushill are quick to emphasise the need for the media to engage with experts and those with lived experience to portray an accurate representation of services on offer today:

‘I’m really tired of depictions of mental health settings as being One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Victorian institutions, asylums with really horrible stigmatising two dimensional pictures of people being that particular setting,’ says Bushill, ‘and it is really, really irritating for anyone who has ever been section or been detained. It’s not the best system in the world, but it’s not that.’

‘My PhD research was with young inpatient units, and I can’t tell you the number of those young people I interviewed who said they were so surprised when they went into the unit because they weren’t put in a straitjacket. That’s what they assumed would happen because they were so used to seeing asylums depicted that way. The power to show what people can and can’t expect is huge.’

Kate Martin

Give characters their superpowers

An oft-repeated message throughout the conversation by all panellists, Martin brought home the need for creators to display the agency that people dealing with their mental health have.

‘We’re often depicted as people who need to be helped rather than people who can help ourselves or help others,’ she says.

This does not showcase the nuanced thought process and the messy reality of living or having lived with mental health challenges. How does it affect relationships? How does someone choose to get support? Showing the ways in which people do things to help themselves as well as their peers and their communities, especially outside of accessing the traditional forms of mental health support, is a strand that is currently missing from the stories that are often told on our screens.

For me it’s a case of showing that it is a superpower – showing the positivity. Yes, if you Google depression you see someone staring through a window, but let’s look at the positive side of things first and then we can look at the negative. We could be finding a way to showcase that having this “illness” is actually a superpower and there’s some positivity in that as well.

Stewart Kysamire

It doesn't have to be the central tale

The panel was emphatic in their assertion that there is a need for creators to give space to stories that do not depict characters with mental health issues experiencing a mental health crisis as their central story.

‘It doesn’t have to be the story arc, or the defining characteristic or the reason why you’re caring about that person in that moment.’ says Bushill. ‘Instead we should have characters who have mental health that they are managing in the background because this is the reality for many.’

The OKRE Fund is currently looking to support innovative collaborations that explore mental health and climate health.