Media Professionals Can Remedicalize Mental Illness: Where Do We Start?

From Christine Gamble, PhD, Cognitive Neuroscientist, Senior Data Strategist, Grey Group & Taylor McLean Senior Planner, Grey Group


May is Mental Health Awareness month and as advertising and media professionals, we have the power to shape how mental health/illness is portrayed. How do you recommend we depict a better portrayal, challenge stigma and change the conversation? 

On a routine strategy check-in call, Bill Carson, a former practicing psychiatrist and current Chairman of the Board of the Sozosei Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on the decriminalization of mental illness, shared an observation that left the Grey strategy team speechless. He told us, “As a physician, it was easier to tell parents that their child had terminal cancer than to tell them their child had schizophrenia.”

The reason for this reaction is stigma around mental illness—the stated enemy of the Sozosei Foundation, and the target of our proposed creative campaign at Grey.

Stigma is born out of misunderstanding. Often, mental illness is misrepresented in media, and as advertising and media professionals we too have the ability and responsibility to help dismantle those distortions.

Our society is talking about mental health (and mental illness) more than ever, but this doesn’t mean the conversation is accurate or truly effective in facilitating understanding and reducing stigma.

Attempts at destigmatizing mental illness and bringing it into the open often overshoot their goal, and end up trivializing or even glamorizing mental illness. People with good intentions offer advice like, “When I’m stressed I go for a run or do yoga and that helps, you should try that instead of medication,” likening their own healthy typical experience of emotion with clinically significant Anxiety or Panic Disorder. Or they glamorize and romanticize the “tortured genius” that fuels an artist’s work, ignoring the fact that that artist would be happier, healthier, and more creative if their Major Depressive Disorder were treated.

And despite these attempts at destigmatization, a large part of the conversation around mental illness is still when it is blamed for violence. Mass shooters or unprovoked assailants are described as mentally ill, in an attempt to make sense of seemingly senseless violence. But those with mental illness are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violence, and these narratives harm and further “other” mental illness sufferers.

The goal of our campaign with Sozosei is to remedicalize mental illness, emphasizing the legitimacy of mental illness while also reducing the stigma. When someone has a physical illness or injury, we don’t tell them to just try meditating or positive thinking or treat them as an unpredictable threat to our own safety. We have empathy because their condition isn’t their fault, it doesn’t define them, and it is something that deserves treatment.


How do we as advertising and media professionals remedicalize mental illness, during Mental Health Awareness Month and beyond? 

For one, we must avoid following the aforementioned societal trends of trivializing, glamorizing, or demonizing mental illness.

Past this, we can take cues from Procter & Gamble’s Widen the Screen campaign, the work that brought us to Sozosei’s attention. Like other marginalized communities, those with mental illness are often portrayed in the extremes, polarized narratives with only suffering or triumph viral, as opposed to the full range of their experiences. We must present a more accurate picture of what it really is to experience mental illness. Similarly, when those with mental illness tell their own stories or advise us as storytellers, the result is inevitably more nuanced, and empathetic.  Firsthand accounts incorporate accurate depictions, as is the case with any marginalized group sharing their stories.

Finally, perhaps the easiest action we can take (and on a personal level) is being more conscious about the language we use. Language can either reinforce or help dismantle stigma; as understanding changes so too does language, and vice versa. We’ve seen shifts in language coincide with positive social change and support for other marginalized groups in the past, so by using unbiased and medically accurate language we can contribute to remedicalizing mental illness. Part of this is dropping “crazy,” from our language as an insult or a superlative. Another part is humanizing “those with mental illness” by acknowledging their humanity first and their condition second. When we talk about people with mental illness, we should always talking about people. This means they’re people with schizophrenia, not schizophrenics. They’re people with bipolar disorder, not manic-depressives. They’re people with substance abuse disorders, not addicts.

As advertising and media professionals we have the power to shape how mental illness is portrayed, and to combat the misunderstandings and stigma that are still all-too prevalent. Let’s put that power to work.