In recent years, discussions on mental health have been increasingly positive, and the representation of those who struggle with depression, anxiety or ADHD has become more normalized in our current discourse. In film and TV, the number of characters with mental illnesses has almost doubled from 1% in 2015 to 1.7% in 2019. However, most of the characters shown are white, meaning the media falls short regarding the equitable representation of people of color who suffer from mental illnesses.
According to a report in 2019 by the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, a U.S. government organization launched in 1985, Black adults in the U.S. are over 60% more likely than white adults to report symptoms that correlate with depression. When factoring class into the conversation, Black adults in the U.S. living below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to report "psychological distress." The constant subjugation of an entire race of people contributes significantly to the degradation of Black mental health, so why aren't marginalized people at the forefront of these discussions?
Racial disparities in the health field have existed for a long time in America's history. The racial biases of healthcare providers are baked into the practice, especially regarding pain tolerance. A study done by the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia found that Black patients were systematically undertreated for pain complaints: "Black patients were significantly less likely than white patients to receive analgesics for extremity fractures in the emergency room (57% vs. 74%)." Extend this bias to the earlier reports of depressive symptoms in communities of color and the minimization of their symptoms, and you have a hidden class that is in dire need of treatment.
The difficulty in discussing this representation issue lies in the responsibility of our current public discourse surrounding the stigmatization of mental health and communities of color. A 2013 peer-reviewed study by Dr. Earlise Ward, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that 63% of Black respondents believed that a mental health condition was a sign of personal weakness. This stereotype is not unique to people of color, as our society struggles to discuss mental wellbeing. However, the higher percentage of those with that attitude makes it even more difficult for people of color to be vulnerable about their experiences. We do a disservice to communities of color and those who suffer from mental health disorders when we ignore the compounding factors that contribute to deteriorating mental stability.
When looking at the content we consume, the media doesn't have an entirely good grasp on representing mental health, much less for mentally ill people of color. In a May 2019 study, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the ASC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that out of 4,500 characters in film, only 1.7% experience a mental health condition, about 70 characters. Of that 1.7%, 20% were characters of color, which comes close to 14 characters total.
The bias in the healthcare industry, the discrimination against communities of color and the lack of media representation construct a toxic landscape for people of color. The exclusion of voices of color in the narrative fails us all. It not only provides a skewed understanding of who can suffer from depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but it further isolates an already marginalized class of people.