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Conversations addressing mental health issues can be difficult to have in life, and Hollywood storytellers have struggled with it in recent film and TV projects as well, according to a new study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
But the dialogue took a leap forward during “Mental Health in Popular Storytelling,” a revealing panel discussion at the William Morris Endeavor screening room Thursday that explored the study’s data and offered perspectives from content creators, including One Day at a Time executive producer/showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett and former Olympian and trans advocate Caitlyn Jenner.
“I don’t think I’ve been as surprised with the negative results of an investigation as I was with this one,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, the founder and director of the Inclusion Initiative and a veteran of academic studies involving representation in media content. “We’re seeing a dehumanization, a trivialization and a stigmatization of characters with mental health conditions in television and in film.”
Indeed, the study’s findings after analysis of the top 100 films for both 2016 and 2017 as well as the first episodes of the highest rated television programs from 2016 to 2017 TV season revealed a significant lack of representation when it came to mental health conditions: 1.7 percent of characters in film and 7 percent on television were depicted experiencing a mental health condition, contrasted by 18.9 percent of the U.S. population experiencing such conditions. Additionally, representation of the LGBT community — which experiences statistically higher incidents of such conditions as depression and suicide — was nearly nonexistent; minority groups including Latinos, Middle Easterners, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders were completely unrepresented; and teens were significantly underrepresented.
“These numbers need to change, because there’s a public health crisis around mental health and mental illness facing this country and the world,” said Smith. “I don’t want to be doing this for years. We need to put this to rest and there’s enough power in this room to change things.”
While Smith admitted she was disappointed in the study’s findings, it also provided a series of questions “that writers rooms, different creatives can actually ask themselves if they have a character that has a mental health condition they can take themselves through their own kind of self-diagnostic,” she told THR. “Providing the information is really important, because it starts to create an external conversation that there needs to be greater thoughtfulness around these issues that hasn’t previously existed. And so just as gender, race and ethnicity is starting to change on screen we have a long way to go with the LGBTG community and a long way to go when it comes to showing mental health in an authentic and nuanced light.”
Nicole Phelps, the wife of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, opened the day’s dialogue by sharing publicly for the first some of the details of how mental health challenges have impacted her personally, including the loss of two of her uncles — one to alcoholism and one to opioid addiction, as well as her husband’s experience in rehab. “Michael bravely decided to seek professional help and checked himself into a rehabilitation center after finding himself in a very dark place,” she recalled. “I was here in California at the time, and felt absolutely helpless. My mind was reeling as once again another loved one in my life was dealing with very real personal struggles.”
As the couple progressed through Michael’s recovery and started a foundation with a free mental health curriculum, Nicole said she realized “when we as a society talk about alcoholism, it’s not exactly discussed with the same degree or empathy as we give to other diseases. The stigmas, the stereotypes, the judgments — it’s all very real.”
“It’s critically important to communicate that it is OK to not be OK,” she added, noting the power of depiction in popular culture to shift attitudes. “I believe that we’re at the forefront of breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and creating change that fosters more empathy and encourages others to seek professional help.”
During a panel discussion moderated by Out magazine’s Tre’vell Anderson, Calderon Kellett revealed how her series approached mental health issues, which are often dismissed in the Latinx community.
“When we were doing One Day at a Time, we decided to make the lead character Penelope a veteran and we wanted to her [ex-]husband to have issues, also having been a veteran,” she explained. “We wanted to talk about these things and introduce a therapy group and talk about mental health in this community of color, because it’s something we don’t talk about. We have conversations between her and her mother, several, because they have very different feelings about how to go about living their lives.”
“We felt like it was really, really important, so in the pilot episode she is prescribed antidepressants that she is resistant to take because of how she was brought up,” Calderone Kellett said. “She went on medication, then she was feeling better so she went off the medication, and we get a whole episode of what happens” The showrunner revealed that that some of Penelope’s off-meds dialogue was near-verbatim from recordings she’d made when she, too, had gone off of her own medication at a point in between having her two children.
Such personal connections, as well as bringing in veterans group experts on PTSD meant “creating a space in our writers room where people could be very vulnerable,” she said. “We’re a comedy writing room and we had four boxes of Kleenex on the table.” The overwhelming audience response was well worth it, she added. “Boy, when people see themselves seen, it changes lives.”
In contemporary television, audiences will more significantly engage when such challenges surrounding mental health are experienced by a series’ leads rather than a one-off guest shot that in the past could come off like a public service announcement. “It has to be the main character,” Calderone Kellett said. “We’re past the ‘very special episode.'”
Jenner revealed her own struggles and sense of isolation in the many years before she decided to publicly transition in 2015 at age 65, after living life in the spotlight as a famous decathlete, actor and reality TV personality. “I couldn’t talk to anybody about it — nobody. I had been trying to deal with this on my own,” she said. “Growing up and having difficulty with your identity, in the 50s, 60s, even in the 70s, people didn’t even give it a name. They didn’t know what it was, so you keep your mouth shut and you keep moving on. But I’ve always had to deal with it…. For six years one time, I kind of put myself away in my house because I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. And I said, ‘Am I going to sit out here and rot? Or am I going to live my life authentically?’”
In committing to transitioning and doing so in the public eye, “I also wanted to try to make a difference in this issue, and honestly that has probably been more difficult than I thought it would ever be,” Jenner said. “I want to do a really good job, but a lot of times you just get knocked down, like anybody with any condition…. I came from a different place: I came from what society looks at as this male, white, athlete, successful, what is every guy’s dream to actually, in being myself, one of the most marginalized communities…. It’s been a growing experience. I love diversity today. Before, I couldn’t be around diversity. I just had to play my role.”
In the four years since taking her transition public, Jenner has become aware of the impact her story — depicted on the reality series I Am Cait and across the media landscape — had on people experiencing similar issues, and she said she hoped one key point from her example was coming through for those who are struggling. “There’s a good life out there. I just wake up in the morning and be myself all day. It’s so simple! But my life was so complicated before, trying to play all these different roles in life. But a lot of people when they’re dealing with these things, they don’t realize that you have to get through it. And life can be really good on the other side.”
Jenner also revealed she’d developed a scripted TV series over the last two years that she believed would address trans issues with humor. “I thought, ‘Let’s do what Will & Grace did for the gay community, let’s do what Bill Cosby did for the black family — brought it into everybody’s home,” said Jenner. “So the last couple of years, I’ve been working on it. It’s found a home, it’s getting done, we’re writing scripts. I wanted to kind of change the narrative. It’s serious at times, it’s gotta be real, but on the other side, make it funny…. Let’s laugh about it. Let’s talk about gender roles in a fun way.”
After the panel, Jenner told THR that she might have benefitted from having characters on film and television to model and learn from earlier in her own life. “I kind of suffered more in silence,” she said. “But by the time I was going to come out there were other voices that were already out there. I thought I would actually transition in the ’80s, but I just got to a point that I couldn’t go any farther and I said, ‘I just can’t do this.’ And wound up getting married, having more kids, raising family for the next 25 years.
“But in that time period things had changed,” she explained. “There were other voices that went before me — the Laverne Coxes of the world. Janet Mock was another one. Just very intelligent, articulate spokespeople. And the issue had come so far forward in the time period that I thought to myself maybe I can add my voice to that conversation. And so, yes, those people inspired me, the ones that went before me, although I had never talked to them. Never knew them. I was obsessed with watching if they were on a show. If Laverne was on a show, or Oprah’s doing things on trans people. It was just different now, and I thought maybe I could add my voice to that conversation.”
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