Enabling people with mental illness to make films could challenge media stereotypes, say researchers

Staff Reporter

Luis de Estores, Suzanne Feldman and Rod Radford discuss creating short documentary films on mental illness and health. (Allison Ridgway)
Luis (who asked that only his first name be used due to privacy concerns), Suzanne Feldman and Rod Radford discuss creating short documentary films on mental illness. (Allison Ridgway)

Three Canadian researchers are giving people who’ve experienced mental illnesses the resources and training to make their own documentary films to see if such videos challenge traditional media stereotypes about people who are mentally ill.

So far, participants have created videos with substantially different themes and frameworks than the stories on mental illness usually found in mainstream media, said Ryerson journalism professor Gavin Adamson, one of three principal investigators for the Recovery Advocacy Documentary Research (RADAR) project.

“Intuitively, it looks like it’s a whole different shape and set of stories that are being produced – mostly (stories) about recovery, social assistance, treatment, challenges with the mental health system in Canada and provincially,” said Adamson, who is working on the four-year project with Rob Whitley of the McGill University psychiatry department and Kathy Sitter, a professor of social work at Memorial University.

“That’s not the same kind of issues you hear from mainstream journalism titles … predominantly they have articles about crime and violence. It’s usually police stories or court stories that reinforce the stigmatizing characteristics and that are a complete misrepresentation of what is happening in Canada on the streets”

Four RADAR films were premiered at the Ryerson School of Journalism earlier this month to an audience of around 50 people.

“People with mental illness want to be heard,” said first-time Suzanne Feldman, one of three participant filmmakers in Toronto.

“We’re here to encourage the truth to be known to people.”

In an interview after the films’ premier, McGill’s Whitley said one of the research aims was to see what happens if people with mental illness are given complete control over the storytelling process.

“If you go onto YouTube, you’ll find loads of documentaries about mental illness, but they’re all made by professional documentary filmmakers … That means [people with mental illnesses] are being represented by other people. They’d talk about them in the third-person. There’s not much out there that actually comes from the people themselves. That was my inspiration [for this research project] – to take out the middle man,” said Whitley.

RADAR began in October 2014, when the research group partnered with mental health-focused community organizations in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax to give clients the training and resources needed to make their own videos about mental illness. The project was borne of the  “participatory filmmaking” concept, wherein groups of people (often those who have traditionally been marginalized by mainstream media) are given the resources to make films about their experiences and communities instead of having films made about them by outsiders.

In each city, the research group used funds from a government grant to buy video equipment and editing software for mental health services clients and hire professional videographers to train the participants.

In Toronto, Feldman and her teammates Rod Radford and Luis, who asked that only his first name be used due to privacy concerns, produced four short documentaries on topics including the Ontario Disability Support Program, Mad Pride and the use of art in mental illness recovery.

“From a journalism perspective it’s interesting to compare the normal frames and themes that are inside mainstream media and compare those themes to the ones that recur in all of the films produced in the recovery centres,” said Adamson. He recently completed another study in which he examined the content of mainstream media articles dealing with mental health and how often they were shared across digital media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. He found that readers were 700 times more likely to share “positive” news stories about recovery and treatment than “negative” stories associating mental illness with crime and violence.

With 15 RADAR films completed and more underway, Whitley says they plan to show the videos to medical professionals, high school students, police services, social workers and other groups that work or are involved with people with mental illness. After each showing, the researchers pass out surveys to audience members to assess whether or not the films change viewers’ opinions about people with mental illness.

Feldman’s film, which explores how people with mental illnesses are marginalized by society, will also be shown at the upcoming Bluenose-Ability Film Festival in Nova Scotia.

If the researchers find that the films do help to fight stereotypes about people with mental illness, Whitley said he wants to expand the program to include more Canadian cities and create a toolkit to help mental health organizations form their own participatory video programs.

“A goal is to really counter the narrative that’s been put forward by the media that people with mental illness are violent, or lazy or useless people,” he said.

The researchers will also interview each participant after the project to assess whether or not the use of participatory video aided them in their own mental health recovery.

“It was really refreshing that [the filmmakers] were able to do as well as they did in such a short time,” said Derreck Roemer, a Gemini-award winning documentary filmmaker who was hired to train RADAR’s Toronto group in filmmaking.

Rod Radford, one of the Toronto filmmakers, said positive representations of people with mental illness can improve the public’s perception of mental illness and decrease the stigma that prevents people from seeking psychiatric help,

“Things are getting better, and people will look towards us – the psychiatric culture – to tell our stories,” said Radford. “We’re reaching out and explaining ourselves to people, and that’s good, because that communication makes things better.”