Characters with disabilities (including mental health issues) in popular storytelling are rarely depicted accurately, or outside of narrow stereotypical ways. In circumstances where disabled characters are included, they tend to be shown in ways that dehumanize or stigmatize.
Critical issues related to depictions of mental health and disability include the following:
● Are characters with disabilities or mental health conditions shown in conjunction with violence, as plotting to commit acts of violence, or as villains? Individuals with mental health conditions are no more violent than individuals without these conditions and studies show they are more likely to be victims than perpetrators. By playing into existing stereotypes about violence and mental health, entertainment may further stigmatize mental health conditions in ways that encourage prejudice.
● Are characters with disabilities shown as helpless or restricted from participating in society in ways that dehumanize or stigmatize these characters?
● Is mental health or disability shown as the object of a joke? This can trivialize the experience of individuals living with disabilities or mental health conditions. For instance, using language that is derivative of words like “crazy” or “insane” or making pejorative comments when a character suggests something outlandish may serve as a punchline, but it can also mock mental illness and those who struggle with it.
Questions to ask about characters with disabilities:
● Do the characters have well-rounded stories (including hobbies, friends, love interests, talents, family), and an arc not solely limited to their disability or mental health challenges?
● Are the characters shown without a job, occupation, or career?
● Are the characters in jobs that unduly spotlight or over-emphasize the character’s disability?
● Does the story depict the character “transcending” disability in ways that frame disability as something to overcome or that present the disability as a superpower?
● Are characters with disabilities in the story depicted as isolated, infantilized, helpless, or desexualized?
Stories can have a powerful impact on changing the ways we perceive mental health, how we talk about it, and our ability to seek help and help others.
Amazon Studios has joined a coalition of leading entertainment companies and mental health experts to launch the Mental Health Media Guide, a comprehensive resource for content creators designed to help expand positive mental health portrayals. The best practices and evidence-based recommendations within this tool can support storytellers at any phase in the production process, across a wide range of mental health themes and topics. We recommend our teams dive into this guide for the most up-to-date resources in mental health and storytelling.