Are you crazy? two film projects challenging mass media stereotypes

I was inspired to write this blog as a result of last week’s #nhssm chat about the role of film in NHS campaigns which aim to influence attitudes and/or behaviours. It got me reflecting on a few initiatives we have undertaken in Leeds which aim to offer an alternative to mass media representations of mental distress.

A few words about the influence of mass media

Mass media plays a significant role in filtering our background knowledge about mental health problems, as well defining what attitudes and behaviour we believe are socially acceptable.  My sense is that attitudes are shifting, but mass media still routinely depict people experiencing mental health problems as different, dangerous or laughable. What’s more, research indicates that mass media representations have a direct impact on our attitudes and behaviour (Thornicroft, 2006).

In a previous blog I reflected on the evidence that direct contact is an effective method for shifting negative attitudes about mental health. I’m curious about the relative impact of the personal voice within film as opposed to that of journalists or mental health professionals.

 Our film projects

 The amateur art film – at Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust we have developed a film project, through our Arts and Minds Network, that has developed over the last three years. We bring together people with personal experience of mental health problems and provide training, equipment and peer-mentoring for people to develop their own short films. They are made without the mediation of professionals (other than technical experts). The starting point is people themselves, their experiences and their imagination. Professional voices are absent and irrelevant. The finished products are creative, amateur, challenging, distressing and humorous in turn.

An annual premier at the 2011 Leeds International Film Festival, to a general audience, assures credibility and status. The film makers develop new skills, made new connections and have new experiences. The result, I hope, is a triple-whammy – a series of anti-stigma films; new skills and experiences gained by the people involved; a mainstream audience at a high-status international film festival.  You can find the films here.

I think making a film from personal experience makes a big difference.  I was motivated by a desire to be understood, to show people that this could per the person living next door to you.  I think the films made by people with personal experience had more leeway to be honest and so we were more free to be a bit more experimental” film maker

To complement the short films last year, we invited Dr Peter Byrne, consultant psychiatrist and film expert, to give a lecture on representation of mental distress. We were surprised to have a sell-out audience, suggesting to us that these issues can be of interest to a general audience.

The student film project – our partnership with the Northern Film School is predicated on two objectives. Firstly, we want a series of locally-made professional short films on the theme of challenging mental health stigma. Secondly, we want to influence the attitudes and behaviours of film makers of the future. We are interested in engaging young people in developing messages relevant to their peers, particularly as the core demographic of Time to Change social marketing is an older group.

We began with a workshop for sixty or so students. We got them thinking and critiquing everyday language they and their friends may use about mental distress. Sally (aged 18) shared her own experience of experiencing mental health problems, and associated stigma, as well as showing her own insightful short films she has made about her experiences.

We provided a series of film briefs for students and gave them links to background materials.  They pitched their film ideas to a panel comprised of film specialists as well as people working in and using mental health services.  They then had complete free reign to go away and produce the films, with support from us as required. They are currently in the final stages of production. We’ll evaluate the students’ experiences and I’ll share the finished products when we have them in May.

So what have we learnt?

There is an important place for professional films produced using social marketing insights with specific audiences in mind. There’s also a place for something more raw. More experimental. Where the process of production is as important as the finished product. I love the suggestion from Liz Sayce (2000) that ‘artistic approaches [to challenging stigma] may provide an emotional, humorous, or aesthetic counterbalance to the psycho-killer imagery’ found in the media. I think the films are successful in this respect, creating new and different narratives, approaching things from a different vantage point.

We’ve still a lot to learn. For example, we haven’t paid enough attention to measurement.  We have some qualitative data but not enough to be confident about impact. We are currently only reaching comparably small audiences. We are building our confidence and our reach over time and look forward to it continuing. 


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