February 21, 2024

Media and mental health share a close relationship. While things like television, movies, books, news and social media provide valuable sources of entertainment, education and connection, they simultaneously shape and reflect a culture’s values and identities.

Sophie To

Sophie To

For public health researchers like Sophie To, doctoral student in health behavior at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, understanding the complex ways in which people engage with media, especially people from communities that are commonly underrepresented, is key to learning effective strategies to improve health — both mental and physical.

Engaging media often relies on storytelling. In fact, it is one of the most powerful tools that helps audiences translate abstract ideas into lived experiences. To’s research focuses on the ways that storytelling can be used as part of health advocacy and health activism, and she is first author on a newly published study in Health Communication that shines a light on how young Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) with mental health concerns perceive media and are impacted by the stories that are told.

To and her collaborators conducted 20 in-depth interviews with people ages 18-25 who identified as BIPOC and had a diagnosed mental health condition or had mental health concerns. Their goal was to understand the different ways that media engagement might affect the health of people with multiple marginalized identities and varying life experiences.

Respondents talked about how they use media – including to promote advocacy or well-being, seek representation of their own life experiences, or encourage diversity in content creators – and how media impacts viewers – such as through the perpetuation of stereotypes, negative influence on self-worth or the spread of harmful misinformation.

“We found several themes in this research, but one of the major ones spread throughout all of them was that ‘mainstream/big media’ sources aren’t covering some of the issues that really matter to BIPOC people with mental health concerns,” said To, “or they’re covering them in a way that obscures issues at hand.”

Those interviewed came from broad ethnic and racial backgrounds, including Black, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Hispanic or Latine, Indigenous, and mixed-race individuals. Participants were also of varying gender identities and sexual orientations, and most were college students or recent college graduates from across the United States.

Led by To and collaborator Jaz Gray, PhD, assistant professor at Pepperdine University, the team grouped the responses into a set of six themes.

How people and society shape the media

  1. Motivations for using the media
  2. What does “representation” mean?
  3. How to effect positive change in the media

How the media impact people and society

  1. How BIPOC people’s mental health and well-being are affected
  2. How people’s behavior is influenced by harmful media
  3. The media’s effects on society

To said that while responses were mostly about the media’s impact on mental health, they revealed other health concerns, too. “We conducted the study between November 2020 and January 2021, so many people reflected on issues of things like anti-Black and anti-Asian violence,” she explained. “The way things like that are portrayed or misrepresented in media also has implications for everyday physical safety, especially against people who are oppressed.”

The team found several implications for public health intervention in the interviews, many of which emphasize the need to build more critical media literacy, diversify the voices involved in content creation and create safeguards to mitigate harm. According to To, if people can critically engage with media and are exposed to more representation in the stories they see, especially in early childhood, it has the potential to improve both mental health and personal-social interactions, creating opportunities for harm reduction that can carry on throughout a person’s life.

“The hope is that it improves mental health and leads to less harmful media,” she explained. “And I see initiatives like that that already starting to happen in places like the K-12 education sector.”

Adults can put this into practice as well by engaging with a variety of media sources, including local and other grassroots outlets that raise awareness on important social issues or amplify the storytelling of BIPOC creators. To says that this can include non-mainstream media reporting on events that disproportionately affect marginalized groups, such as the public health and humanitarian crises currently happening in Palestine.

“While this might seem obvious to many people, that makes it all the more surprising that there aren’t more studies on this topic,” To said. “It’s important that we get the word out in the academic sphere – in writing and with quotes from people who are affected – to show how young people with mental health concerns are thinking about media and that we really care and want things to be better.”

Read the full study online.

Additional co-authors on the paper include Jaz Gray PhD, Parul Jain, PhD, Jeannette Porter, PhD, and Maria Leonora Comello, PhD.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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