De-stigmatizing Mental Illness Early: Role of Childhood Animations

While popular media in often criticized for furthering the misunderstanding of mental illness, children’s animated entertainment plays an understated yet important role in destigmatizing mental health issues in younger populations. The depiction of animated characters has always been appealing because it stimulates children’s imaginations by immersing them in a fictive world of talking animals and impossible scenarios. By nature, animated movies don’t try to visually reproduce an accurate semblance of reality. Coincidentally, this makes them an ideal platform for introducing kids to the conversation about mental health. The choice of animated characters, often animals, as the focal points of the entertainment allows the young audience to absorb the core of mental health issues through what the characters saying, not what they look like. Characters in all shapes and sizes can exhibit various mental health issues, without any implications regarding the more complex factors of race, socioeconomic status, age and ethnicity.

When looking specifically at adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the majority of the characters present symptoms of various psychological disorders in some form or another, but without explicitly mentioning mental health. For example, the White Rabbit’s obsession about promptness, and consequently his fear and paranoia associated with time, correlates to a stress-related disorder such as General Anxiety Disorder; the caterpillar, always seemingly smoking a hookah, speaks in riddles in a slow, prophet-like manner as if he was Alice’s superior, which is characteristic of grandiose delusions (GD). In addition, although Alice exhibits symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, and the Mad Hatter those of both Bipolar disorder and PTSD, Alice in Wonderland is a story so infused with mental illness that both of these characters actually had syndromes named after them: Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (disorientating condition affecting perception of size) and Mad Hatter Disease (synonymous with chronic mercury poisoning).

Although complex neurological disorders are depicted implicitly through these main characters, the audience is not experiencing the characters as diseases, but instead as a plethora of very different individuals with diverse mannerisms. The dialogue between the Mad Hatter and Alice encompasses the perception on mental health in the story: Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?” Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.” Here, Alice is acknowledging people as people – regardless of their state of mental health – and this message is subtly transmitted to a mostly children’s audience. The various psychological disorders presented exist in characters of all natures: humans, rabbits, caterpillars, cats, mice, etc, which contrasts the notion that only certain people are affected by, or susceptible to, certain disorders.

Alice in Wonderland is only one of many popular movies or TV shows that presents animated characters exhibiting psychological disorders; two other notable examples are Inside Out and Winnie the Pooh. Winnie the Pooh, like Alice in Wonderland, depicts mental disorders through the main characters: Piglet with generalized anxiety disorder, Owl with dyslexia, Tigger with ADHD, Eeyore with Depressive Disorder and Winnie with Impulsivity with obsessive fixations. Inside Out focuses on one’s internal dialogue by breaking down the voices in Riley’s head by the emotions Joy, Fear, Disgust, Sadness and Anger. The symptoms of depression are present when the emotions Joy and Sadness are out of the headquarters, and Riley’s mind is driven by other emotions. Inside Out adapts an alternative approach of attempting to understand and destigmatize depression by understanding what emotions are present in the main character, instead of looking at depression through what can be observed from the outside.

Although the media does play a role in the stigmatization of psychological disorders, these key examples show how children’s animated entertainment has the potential to facilitate conversations to better understand the complexities of mental health at a young age.

By Katherine Miclau '20 | Staff Writer