01/09/2013 12:24 EST | Updated 03/11/2013 05:12 EDT

How We Portray Mental Health on TV Matters

young woman in stress
young woman in stress

"Art may imitate life, but life can never imitate art." -Author Unknown

I'm often asked what has been done to eliminate mental health stigma, what is currently being done to eliminate stigma, and what still has to be done. It's a loaded question and one that's not easy to answer; especially when I'm asked over social media where characters are limited and the things I say can sometimes be taken out of context.

Mental health has been at the top of the headlines since the Sandy Hook tragedy and now since the preliminary hearing has begun for alleged Aurora, Colorado mass shooter James Holmes. I am saddened that it took these tragedies to make mental health a talking point whether it's on local or national newscasts or even around the water cooler at work. While we can't reverse the damage caused by the tragedies we can create change to potentially avert future tragedies.

I've had a lot of fun recently engaging in debates with friends and mental health colleagues as to whether or not Hollywood has a responsibility to bring social issues to the forefront in the product it produces. Half of my friends believe highlighting the struggles of those with mental illness in a fictional manner only furthers the stigma and conforms to popular beliefs and stereotypes. The other half believes Hollywood has the ability to use its magic to accurately depict the day-to-day life of those with mental illness while also showing what happens when people do and don't seek treatment.



And now for the is my opinion that, if done properly, Hollywood should depict both sides of any social issue that is a talking point amongst either politicians and/or the general public. Only Hollywood has the power to write things so perfectly and give a balance, that's part of the magic. As sad as it is people tend to get sucked into a lot more to a drama then they do reality TV. I've heard stories of countless actors and actresses being approached by hardcore fans in airports over something they did while in character. If people are this obsessed with shows such as soap operas maybe they won't tolerate something like mental health stigma if the character's on the show doesn't.

Mental health is currently on the forefront of two TV shows that I'm keeping an eye on. The first is The Young & The Restless in which Sharon Newman does some questionable things to the concern of her loved ones that includes starting a fire. Eventually Sharon is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and seeks treatment for her mental health difficulties. Sharon's family and friends don't judge her and stick by her as she gets help for the challenges facing her. This storyline has taken place over the past few months but I praise the writers for their diligence in how mental illness has been depicted and feel the show has done their part in helping to eliminate mental health stigma.

Meanwhile up here in Canada, CBC premiered a show last night called Cracked. The show, while fictional, depicts stories inspired by real-life experiences of mental-health professionals and police officers on the front lines.

After speaking with mental health colleagues before the premiere of Cracked there was a lot of concerns that the show may unintentionally showcase people with mental health difficulties in an unfavourable way or potentially violent and therefore advancing the stigma. My colleagues (or as I like to call them, the jury) are still deliberating but I've come to a verdict.

It would be wrong not to accurately depict what front-line officers encounter and sometimes they are called to respond to people with mental illness who could be harming themselves or at high risk of harming others. But the show must find a balance, which I feel it did last night but showing the mental health difficulties of the main character while allowing him to use his personal difficulties to relate to the people he has a duty to respond to.

I hope to see more shows in the future bring mental health to the forefront to quash stigma. It's in everybody's interest!