New Northwestern Student Studio Lab Focuses on Mental Health Portrayals in Media

The new Studio Lab at Northwestern University School of Communication aims to fight stigma by providing positive depictions of mental health in media.

Northwestern University School of Communication has launched a new student film incubator—the Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab for the Promotion of Mental Health via Cinematic Arts—to create and examine original narrative screenwriting and media creation centered around mental health. This studio lab is possible thanks to the gift of a $1 million grant from the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation.1

“It is well documented that mass media has long perpetuated a profoundly negative stigma related to mental health. 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,” said David Tolchinsky, the Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab’s new director. “We believe there is an enormous opportunity to use media—in particular, narrative filmmaking across drama, comedy, and horror—as a means to shine a light on a wide range of mental health issues.”

Tolchinsky argues that many films wrongly associate mental illnesses like schizophrenia and dissociative disorder with violence, or display characters who present with a combination of mental health symptoms not attributable to a particular illness.

“Filmmakers sometimes depend on audience bias and misconceptions around mental health—as well as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc—as devices to move the plot forward and create fear, laughter or other emotional reactions,” Tolchinsky said. “By educating media makers about the multi-dimensional 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.”

The new Studio Lab programing includes technical training and guest lectures by a variety of teachers, including psychologists, social scientists, anthropologists, and screenwriters. Additionally, students will receive grants of $2,000 for screenplays and $5,000 for films to be created and completed over a year, along with access to new film equipment to help the selected students make their visions come to life. As part of the first cohort, 10 students have been commissioned, and the number of students will increase as the Studio Lab expands over the next 5 years.

“We strive to provide our students with the best facilities, faculty and experiential opportunities, as well as help them address their mental health and wellbeing,” said E. Patrick Johnson, dean of the School of Communication. “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.”

The Studio Lab’s site states that participants can expect to “create and produce new works across comedy, drama, and horror that portray mental health, lead to broader understanding among audiences, and strive to influence societal change,” amongst other programming.2

Tolchinsky is a filmmaker, screenwriter, playwright, and founding director of the MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage program. His projects include “Sick by Seven,” a collection of 7 plays and films about modern mental health; “An Attempt to Heal in the Contemporary World,” a dark comedy about psychologist Wilhelm Reich; “Cassandra,” the award-winning thriller about 90s memory recovery methods; and an upcoming horror film for Shudder/AMC Networks about extreme isolation.

The Studio Lab hopes to improve the lives of not only its students, but a broader audience from within Northwestern too, as well as the local community. Public lectures, discussions, and screenings around the depiction of mental health and mental illness will take place beginning in January 2022. There will also be a symposium in 2023 about mental health depictions.

“We’ll celebrate the films and TV shows that have, in fact, shined a light on mental health and illness and discuss those that may be problematic in an effort to determine how we, as filmmakers, can continue to entertain while also promoting empathy, understanding and acceptance,” Tolchinsky said.

References

1. Kulke S. Northwestern student film incubator tackles mental health portrayals in media. Northwestern Now. January 3, 2022. Accessed January 7, 2022. https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2022/01/northwestern-student-film-incubator-tackles-mental-health-portrayals-in-media/

2. Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab. About. Accessed January 7, 2022. https://studiolab.northwestern.edu/about/