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Mental Health Onscreen

A new studio lab supported by the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation is studying how TV and movies portray mental health.

Studio Lab Trio
From left, Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab Director David Tolchinsky, actor Geno Walker and Brett Neveu, associate professor of instruction, at a screening of the movie ‘Night’s End,’ which Neveu wrote.

Fall 2022

A new student film incubator at Northwestern’s School of Communication is shining a light on how mental health is depicted in TV, movies and other media. The initiative was made possible by a grant from the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation and Jessy Pucker ’19.  

The mission of the Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab for the Promotion of Mental Health via Cinematic Arts is to create, support and examine original narrative screenwriting, TV writing and media-making centered around mental health. 

“We are grateful to Jessy and the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation for helping us give students a pipeline to gain agency over mental health narratives and, through creative collaboration, reshape how we learn and talk about a very misunderstood topic,” says E. Patrick Johnson, dean of the School of Communication and the Annenberg University Professor. 

Mass media has long perpetuated a profoundly negative stigma related to mental health, according to Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab Director David Tolchinsky, a filmmaker, screenwriter and playwright who is founding director of the school’s MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage program. “Through one-dimensional viewpoints, inaccurate portrayals and depictions centered on fear and shame, the media has reinforced discriminatory behavior toward people experiencing mental health issues and propagated impediments to treatment and recovery,” he says. 

“We can generate a meaningful change in the way mental health is understood by society at large.” — David Tolchinsky

Storylines often wrongly associate schizophrenia and dissociative disorder (known in popular culture as split personality) interchangeably with violence or with superpowers, for example, and many films across genres present characters who display an amalgamation of mental health symptoms not attributable to a particular illness, adds Tolchinsky, whose own projects span comedy and darker fare. 

“By educating media-makers about the multidimensional aspects of mental health, encouraging discussion around complex topics and amplifying marginalized voices, we can generate a meaningful change in the way mental health is understood by society at large,” Tolchinsky says. 

The studio lab is a three–academic quarter commitment for students. The curriculum includes technical training and guest lectures by psychologists, social scientists, anthropologists and screenwriters. In addition to instruction, the program provides student grants of $2,000 for screenplays and $5,000 for films to be created and completed over a year, plus access to new film equipment for the grant awardees. Ten students were commissioned as part of the first cohort — and as the studio lab expands over the next five years, that number will increase. 

The studio lab has already begun engaging audiences beyond Northwestern through public lectures, discussions and movie screenings around the depiction of mental health and mental illness. In 2023 it will host a symposium featuring keynote sessions by nationally recognized figures as well as work by student members of the studio lab. 

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