Mental health and fictional characters: study reveals how these can affect us in real life

Simply talking about mental health can help break down the stigma that has been placed over it for so many years. But can watching fictional characters on screens on TV shows and films help disperse the dark cloud people feel they’re under, and help them open up about their own mental health problems?

Well, a study undertaken by Mind, the mental health charity, has revealed that it may have a larger impact than we could ever have anticipated. The study was taken by a UK audience of over 2,063 adults and each was individually interviewed.

Highlights of the study include:

· 52% of those surveyed felt they were more informed on mental health problems after seeing a storyline that involved a character with a mental health condition

· The study also noted how the growing representation in the media of characters with mental health has encouraged others to seek help and support. Nearly a third of people were inspired to get support or open up about their condition after seeing news stories on the topic

· 25% were more prompted to find help after watching a storyline that involved a character dealing with mental health problems. This shows how any representation in the media can help people feel safe enough to speak about their own problems, but people are more likely to do so when they see others like themselves reflected on a TV show or a movie.

It appears that people identify more with fictional characters. This could be due to people investing their time in these characters whether it be for a few hours or even on a weekly basis, and this is especially true for soap dramas. We watch these fictional characters’ stories unfold before us. We see their struggles and we can also see our own similar struggles within them. A character on screen, it seems, is a great advocate for mental health awareness. Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind said: “ Media portrayals and reporting, when done well, can be a lifeline. Drama storylines in particular can help people who might be struggling feel less alone and they play a vital role in signposting to the help and support that is available.”

One interesting fact that the study highlighted was the difference between genders in the study:

· One in three men (37%), compared with only 15% of women, said they were likely to be moved by seeing these characters. There are many possible reasons and factors which may affect this reaction. One factor could be due to how men, unlike women, are less likely to express their feelings over having a mental health illness with those around them. Therefore, by seeing another character’s journey, they may finally open up about their condition.

Actress Maisie Williams, who is best known for her role of Arya in Game of Thrones, spoke to Mind about these effects and the need for more characters with mental illnesses to be portrayed in the media: “Shows like Cyberbully [a series in which Maisie Williams played a character with a mental illness] can really help young people to build up the courage to ask for help or to accept that what is going on in the classroom or online isn’t acceptable. I feel like it inspires young people to pick up the phone or talk to a parent or just get help … After Cyberbully was aired in the UK, we had the anti-bullying line on afterwards and they had a massive influx of calls from kids.”

For more information about the Mind Media Awards, visit their website here.

You can also join the conversation on Twitter with @MindCharity and @Patient using the tag #mindawards.

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