Student and alumna create space to discuss media and mental health

Creators Josie Bullen and Zoe Brown created The Mental Health Content Collective  after they realized that the way a film or television show portrayed mental health had a drastic influence on their perception of their own internal battles. (Photo Courtesy of The Mental Health Content Collective)

In an age where mental health issues are at the forefront of many minds, senior Josie Bullen and alumna Zoe Brown are using social media to increase awareness and education on the matter. 

The Mental Health Content Collective took off as an organization within the last year, creating a space where people can discuss media representation of mental health to become more comfortable with personal mental health conversations and increase coverage of mental health. This spring, the Mental Health Content Collective became a registered student organization. 

“We saw a lack of accurate representation of mental health in the media,” Brown said. “The main focus right now is to have discussions about and spotlight different pieces of content that portray mental health and talk about why that’s important. We think that these discussions of mental health and media, which is sometimes easier to talk about than your own personal mental health, hopefully, makes it easier to then talk about personal mental health.”

Bullen, who is majoring in communication, said she considered starting the collective for years. However, the pandemic allowed for extra time to plan and create the organization, as well as an environment where even more people may need access to a space where they can talk about mental health.

Alison Trope, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the faculty advisor for the Mental Health Content Collective, said the stigma around mental health is decreasing with each generation.

“With the pandemic, too, you have people that may [have] never experienced mental health issues before having mental health issues,” Trope said.“I think that that is going to make people more aware, more sympathetic, empathetic and more engaged in the topic.” 

Bullen and Brown met at an Annenberg Career Track event at the Busy Phillips Show. On the bus, they began sharing stories about their own personal experiences with mental health and instantly became friends, bonding over their shared passion for mental health advocacy and media.

“We’ve bonded over talking about how we went through our own struggles with mental health, and we are both really passionate about entertainment so we thought how we can merge those two interests,” Bullen said. 

In addition to her passion for media, Brown said television helped bring her joy when she was going through a hard period in life and sees potential in using this as a technique to help others as well.

“Some of the shows that I was watching, like, ‘The Good Place’ and ‘This Is Us’ talked about mental health and made me feel less alone in my struggles and I think that it’s really important to have more content like that to help other people,” Brown said.  

Bullen and Brown said they were also inspired by the 2019 Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s “Mental Health Conditions in Film and TV” report. The study showed that despite 20% of the United States population struggling with mental illnesses, only 1.7% of characters in the top 100 films portrayed a mental health condition or illness. 

Their club objectives include creating a safe space for students to talk about mental health and media, listen to the others’ stories of their own experiences and ask questions about how students can make a difference in the professional realm of mental health. They have also had guest speakers, including NBC executives and mental health and body image speaker Victoria Garrick.

Bullen and Brown said they hope to eventually turn the Mental Health Content Collective into a nonprofit in the mental health and entertainment industry. 

“We are definitely dreamers, and we think the sky is the limit,” Bullen said. “We would also in the future love to become a nonprofit and have screenwriting contests that center around mental health and be able to give grants for different films.”

It’s been challenging to start a new student organization during the pandemic, particularly when it comes to resources, time and members, Brown said. However, being determined and working on the organization is an important first step on the road to creating their nonprofit. Brown and Bullen are currently planning more events, guest speakers and creating an open environment on campus. 

“I think the broader goal that they have is really to expand the way we see representation of mental health in mainstream media,” Trope said. ”Whether that’s in streaming content or films or different kinds of user generated content, how can we really explore stereotypes that we see … and possibly change them through new representations. Hopefully, they can have a kind of ripple effect and impact on various stakeholders that are in media industries or at large.”