Representation in pop culture and media matters. We all take cues from the world around us when we make decisions about what should be considered right, attractive, acceptable, and normal. Some of our least ignorable social cues come from popular culture, by way of the TV shows we watch, the songs we listen to, and the books we read. When we fail to see our selves, our lives, and our challenges represented in the messages that surround us, it can be easy to decide that we don’t fit within the box that represents “normal.”
“Normal” is a loaded word, but it’s safe to say that experiencing the effects of mental illness is pretty normal today. In 2019, one in five adults in the U.S. lived with a serious mental illness. And while the stigma attached to mental illness may be fading, thoughtful portrayal of mental illness in the media remains incredibly important.
Mental health representation isn’t new to MTV Entertainment Group. The organization’s shows, many of which are historically raw and unscripted, have occasionally delved into its characters’ mental health histories for decades. But recent research into the effects of that representation has set the group on a new path.
We talked to Meredith Goldberg-Morse and Vaughan Bagley about MTV’s new era of mental illness media portrayal and mental health activism. Meredith is a senior manager on the social impact team for MTV Entertainment Group. She focuses specifically on the representation of social issues with a particular focus on mental health in all shows and content. Vaughan is also a senior manager on the social impact team. She focuses on the organization’s action campaigns, developing ways for its audiences to get involved in important issues and movements.
MTV Entertainment Group is working to bring awareness to mental health and inspire action in media and entertainment. Why is this effort so important, why now, and why you?
Meredith: MTV and our sister brands like VH1 and Comedy Central have quite a long legacy of activating around mental health. For example, MTVU’s Half of Us campaign launched back in 2006 and provided a platform for celebrities such as Demi Lovato, Macklemore, and Mary J. Blige to share their personal stories, decrease stigma, and normalize conversations about mental health. We’ve also had a long legacy of including mental health storylines on top-rated shows like “Teen Mom” as well as “Black Ink Crew” on VH1.
But what catalyzed this current era of our mental health work — particularly as it relates to storytelling in our shows — was a report that came out of USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in 2019.
That report looked at the representation of mental health conditions across the top-rated films and TV shows of the prior year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it found that not only were mental health conditions underrepresented, but when they were represented, it was in a way that, in a lot of cases, perpetuated stigma and misconceptions around what it’s like to experience a mental health condition. Instead of having a positive effect, these representations were having a not-so-great effect.
Even though that study focused specifically on scripted content, and much of our content is unscripted, it was a reminder that we have not only a responsibility, but a huge opportunity to change the narrative around mental health through our content and storytelling, particularly at a time when more people than ever are struggling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result of that, we’ve made a commitment to expand mental health representation across our brands and platforms, and to make sure that all of the stories we tell not only do no harm, but really represent mental health in a way that is authentic and nuanced and inspires our viewers to take a positive action — for their own mental health or to support others.
As an extension of that work, we’ll also be providing training and education for all of our internal creative teams to make sure that they have the tools and resources they need to support that storytelling.
Vaughan: Incorporating these storylines into our content is so important. We all hear the statistics so often, but it’s incredibly important to actually see people who look like you and who feel real and authentic and true, especially in unscripted content, where these are real, authentic people out there in the universe who have experiences that you can relate to.
It’s not just in moments of crisis that we should be thinking about how we can support our mental health. That’s where our side of the house takes the baton from Meredith’s side of the house — as we think about how we can inspire people to take actions for themselves, whether it be through meditation or through joining a support group or through advocating in their community.
We think about, what are the ways that we can equip our audiences with the tools that they need to actually improve their own lives or help a friend or family member along the way?
What are you most excited to be working on in this space right now?
Meredith: On the storytelling front, one of the most exciting aspects of this initiative is that although it started within the MTV Entertainment Group, we recognized very quickly that if we were going to move the needle on this issue, we couldn’t do that alone. It’s going to require the full force of the entertainment industry in collaboration with the mental health expert community to make sure that these messages around mental health become really ubiquitous for viewers, and that we are seeding these messages across a wide range of genres and platforms, and reaching a diverse range of viewers.
To that end, we spearheaded the Mental Health Storytelling Coalition, which is a coalition of leading entertainment companies as well as mental health experts. The first product out of that coalition is the Mental Health Media Guide.
That’s intended to create a shift within the industry in how mental health stories are approached throughout the development, production, and release process, and across a wide range of genres and platforms. The Guide is a free, accessible resource that anyone can access online. It has best practices and actionable tips for storytellers who are going through the process of telling a story about mental health, or who just want to find ways to infuse what they’re working on with a mental health message.
Vaughan: On our side of the house, for Mental Health Awareness Month, we launched something called Mental Health Action Day, which took place on May 20. We brought together more than 1,400 nonprofits, brands, government agencies, and cultural leaders to drive the conversation from awareness to action on this one singular day.
At the beginning of the month, we launched our consumer-facing website. On that site, you can find a number of different ways to take care of and maintain your mental health. We also realized that we have an amazing reach across our digital streaming platforms, but we could have a much broader reach if we used our coalition superpowers to bring together all of these other organizations to drive the conversation on this single day. They helped us by making their actions as visible as possible across social channels and across their networks, newsletters, events and all the things that ended up coming together on that day.
Given the disproportionate impact of COVID and of the events of the last year on communities of color, the LGBTQ community, and youth, we are taking what we built with Mental Health Action Day in May and thinking about how we can focus our efforts on communities that haven’t gotten equal access to mental health care in the past.
We are in the planning stages of what that second phase of our campaign is going to look like. But we were able to build this amazing coalition of partners in May, so we’re hoping that there will be further opportunities to work with a lot of those organizations and companies, some of whom had done a lot of mental health campaign work in the past, and some of whom were dipping their toes into this space for the first time.
On the storytelling side, what does it mean to represent mental health challenges “well”? When it comes to portrayals of mental illness in the media, how do you know whether you’re doing a good job?
Meredith: There are a lot of nuances involved. To make sure that we are representing mental health in a way that’s going to have a positive impact, we really rely on experts — clinical experts and nonprofit organizations that we work with — to be partners throughout the process of developing, producing, and releasing content.
They help us ensure that we’re positioned to have a positive impact, and that we’re infusing that expert perspective every step of the way. As an extension of that, many of our expert partners also have connections to people with lived experience to make sure that we’re infusing that perspective as well.
What have your audiences’ reactions to these mental health initiatives been like?
Meredith: One great example of the reactions we’ve seen came from an event that we held tied to the launch of the Mental Health Media Guide called the Better Together: Mental Health Storytelling Summit.
That summit was intended to inspire and catalyze the next era of mental health storytelling by bringing together leaders across the entertainment industry as well as mental health experts to talk about some of the best examples of mental health storytelling that we’ve seen. It focused on how creators approach those stories and how those stories positively impacted viewers.
The feedback we saw in the chat during the event, and in some surveys that we did after the event, showed that folks really felt like it changed their perspective on how entertainment media can be a catalyst for change.
Vaughan: We had an unbelievable response for Mental Health Action Day, from our partners, and from our collective audiences. We’d set out initially to have 50 partners come on board to participate in this with us, and we got more than 1,400. I think that showed that there is this hunger for a coordinated effort to be pushing these opportunities and actions. That message of awareness to action seemed to really resonate.
Within your organization, are there internal impacts of the external mental health work you’re undertaking?
Meredith: We recognize that creating a culture of mental health behind the scenes is a very critical piece of making sure that mental health is represented in an authentic and nuanced way on screen. We’re excited that the next phase of the Mental Health Media Guide will include best practices and recommendations for taking care of the mental health of cast and crew on-set, in a production environment, and throughout the full process.
Why is this work you’re doing meaningful to you on a personal level?
Meredith: We’ve all seen the impact that really powerful storytelling can have on a number of issues, in terms of making viewers feel seen and heard and understood. I think mental health has been historically under-explored when it comes to representation and even just based on the kind of anecdotal feedback we’ve gotten from viewers who see a really powerful storyline on our network.
In some cases, representation can be the difference between someone getting help or not, or someone knowing how to support a friend or not. Even just hearing the individual impact of these storylines and how they resonate with viewers is a huge motivator for me in my own work, and it’s nice to have that touchpoint with the audience.
Vaughan: We’re able to use our superpowers for good. I think it is a very exciting position to be in, to be able to shine a big spotlight and magnify the work of all of these amazing organizations and young people who are leaders in the mental health space and doing this work in their communities. MTV has a really long legacy of doing that and of focusing on youth leaders across the board. The storyline arc is so vital to showing people that they’re not alone. But the campaign work adds a whole other layer of impact and potential that I find very exciting.
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With a formal education in journalism and mass communications, Lindsey has spent her professional life helping national brands and publications hone their voices and grow their digital audiences. She is a co-founder of Bark Media, a content marketing agency dedicated to telling the stories of impact brands.