Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental health condition, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, but top-grossing films and television shows rarely feature such characters. Even worse, when portrayals do exist on screen, characters are often dehumanized or trivialized, according to a new study from a University of Southern California project. 

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study, led by media diversity expert Stacy L. Smith, found that less than 2% of characters experienced a mental health condition in the 100 top-grossing movies of 2016. Only 7% of characters had mental health conditions in the first episodes of the highest rated TV series from the 2016-2017 season. The number outpaces the film industry but still falls in stark contrast with reality. Nearly half of such characters portrayed in film and 38% of characters on TV were disparaged. 

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“Characters were dehumanized by verbal and nonverbal behaviors such as being treated like a monster, being killed for an addiction, and being ignored,” the study authors noted. “Isolation was also observed, where characters were physically separated (i.e., put in a facility, cell or locked away) or rejected from others.”

Perhaps most problematic, the study found that portrayals among several underrepresented communities were near nonexistent. Not one LGBTQ, Latino, Middle Eastern, Native American or Pacific Islander character in the top 100 films experienced a mental health condition. A handful of characters were black. Of the top 50 TV shows, only eight LGBTQ characters with mental health conditions were portrayed on screen. The study broadly defined a mental health condition as a character experiencing addiction, anxiety/post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorders, suicide, disturbance in thinking, Autism spectrum disorders and eating disorders. 

“What surprised me most is that while mental health conditions cut across every community, in film and TV characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and the LGBT community are erased when these portrayals are shown on screen,” Smith told HuffPost. 

The study found that the majority of portrayals were limited to featuring straight white adult male characters, when research shows that members of underrepresented communities experience mental health conditions at noteworthy rates. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 16.2% of black U.S. adults and 15.2% of Latino U.S. adults live with a mental health condition.

“The prevalence of mental health conditions among the audience far outpaces the characters they see on screen,” Smith added. “This presents a distorted view of the world for those who live and thrive with mental health conditions but never see their stories represented in popular media.”

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