Popular television and public mental health: creating media entertainment from mental distress [2017]

This paper explores how tensions and power differentials within public mental health interact with the practices of media production in entertainment television. I present the findings of a qualitative study involving semi-structured interviews with story consultants from mental health organisations and Senior Executives, Producers and script-writers from UK television series (n = 14). Story advisors welcome the opportunity to reach larger and younger audiences in distinct ways and to share the ‘lived experience’ of mental distress through well-researched characters. They accept their relative lack of power to negotiate dramatic storylines which conflate mental distress with criminality and may undermine their anti-stigma ideals. The ‘medical model’ is prioritised in mainstream television drama and the causes of mental distress framed in biomedical terms. Storylines tend to emphasise the certain benefits of medication and marginalise self-management of conditions. Television industry professionals recognise their anti-stigma public service role and are receptive to working with programme consultants to help create authentic characters. Perceptions of the nature of drama as requiring resolution may help to explain the principal focus on biomedical conceptualisations of mental distress. Medication provides a relatively simple on-screen solution to resolve complex stories. Entertainment television operates within limited ideological frames. Mental distress and stigma are addressed at an individual, not collective level. Debates within the survivor movement and public mental health concerning medication, treatment and recovery tend to be obscured. These might provide a productive alternative vein of storytelling that could broaden our understanding of the social meaning of suffering and thus help challenge stigma.

Lesley Henderson

Critical Public Health, Volume 28, 2018 – Issue 1