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Essay: Exploring Mental Illnesses Through Disney Films: A Look Into Mental Illness Discrimination and Stigmatization in Children’s Television

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  • Subject area(s): Sample essays
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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Words: 1,488 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 6 (approx)
  • Tags: Disney essays

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“Look at this stuff, Isn't it neat?, Wouldn't you think my collection's complete?” Perhaps you found yourself singing along this famous Disney song, from the Little Mermaid. For as long as one can remember, Disney films have been around since 1937, beginning with one of the many Disney princesses, Snow White, and the Seven Dwarfs. This was Walt Disney’s first award-winning film which led to the creation of the many Disney princesses and characters one knows and loves; but did it ever come to mind that possibly a favorite Disney princess struggled with mental illness? Mental illness is one of the misunderstood illnesses out there that people do not take into consideration that it is as serious as it seems to be, which created the looked down upon behavior around those who have a mental disorder and have been facing discrimination on a daily basis. As movie watchers, one does not necessarily notice these details especially among children programs such as Disney, but mental illness has been depicted in Disney films for multiple years, such as a classic favorite, Ariel from Little Mermaid and Pinocchio. Almost every princess Disney Film it always the princess portrayed with the mental illness and even now Disney has not created a mental health aware film; besides, Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out that came out in 2015. Mental health is crucial at every development of growth, from adolescence through adulthood which is why it is important to not ignore this illness and create awareness. Researchers from the Graduate Institute of Professional Psychology, University of Hartford, in their article examine the major concern being expressed of the negative attitudes towards people with mental illnesses beginning to develop in early childhood years.  “The Depiction of Mental Illnesses in Children’s Television Programs,” state that, “They (children)  will rarely see people with mental illnesses depicted in understanding or sympathetic ways and more often see them as threatening, dangerous, and in need of control and separation from society.” In their research over more than half of the two hundred sixty-nine hours of children’s programs that were recorded and watched used mental health terms, most containing slangs and disrespectful terms and were used to bring down others. Those characters were tended to be portrayed as aggressive and threatening while the other characters responded with fear and exclusion. Two studies were examined of the depiction of mental illnesses in Disney films, which came to concluding observations of “images of madness”. For example, Dumbo’s “mad elephant mother” and in Beauty and the Beast Belle’s “crazy old loon father”. As the movie progressed Maurice, Belle’s father he was chained and hauled off in a “lunacy wagon”. According to Allan Beveridge, he observed that madness within Disney films tends to be presented as something to be feared about, with a result in needing to lock away the person labeled as “mad” or “ crazy”. Andrea Lawson and Gregory Fouts from their research study observed that “The average number of mental illness references per film was 4.6, with the 3 most prevalent worded being “crazy,” “mad” or “madness,” and “nut” or “nutty.” These references were commonly employed to segregate, alienate, and denote the inferior status of the character.” It gives that portrayal of fear to children when coming across a person with a mental disorder. More than likely influences their knowledge and allowing children to distrust persons with a mental illness and keeping a social distance away from them.

Mental Illness in Disney princess films

The most used mental illness portrayal is among Disney princess films. In the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, most know how the story goes, but never really thought about what the Seven Dwarfs could symbolize. According to Guff,  Snow White struggles from a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder griefing from both of her parent's death and a personality disorder. Every dwarf symbolized a personality Snow White would express, she interacted with her seven personalities every day and at times they were more prominent than her personality. Ariel, from the Little Mermaid, is a hoarder, she struggles from disposophobia, and even the films popular song “Part of Your World” gives it away, “You want thingamabobs? (I got twenty) But who cares? No big deal, I want more…” Rapunzel from Tangled is kept in a tower by her mother “Gothel” for her entire life. Rapunzel seems to have borderline preventing outside experiences of his or her child. Another example includes Alice from Alice in Wonderland, although Alice is no Disney princess she still falls into the same category. Alice battles with her eating habits, she stumbles down a rabbit hole into a brand new world in which drinks and food labeled “Eat Me” appear out of nowhere. As Alice eats and drinks and eats some more, she changes size dramatically and constantly feels that she is too large or too small. When Alice eats, she doesn’t simply take a small bite but rather binges and then regrets her actions later. Every film so far has a common trait and that is some struggle with a mental disorder that is not necessarily so aware of. The way Disney presents this illness is also common within each film by their choice of diction between the characters. Although, the Walt Disney Company is huge and has not been spot on with their mentions of Disney films it is extremely important to reverse that stigma among the films because young movie watchers influence off the popular films.

Disney-Pixar Creating Awareness

Within the recent course of years, Disney-Pixar has done a great job in developing a mental health aware animated film that came out in 2015 which is Inside Out. It is a movie about depression and how quickly it can develop. This movie demonstrates the quick progression of depression, how depression does not discriminate and how crucial it is that society normalizes talking about mental health. In our today’s society, any emotion is seen as ridiculous, and multiple of people are found to wish they rather feel no emotion. Disney Pixar plays the role of show how extremely important mental health is and demonstrates how dangerous and scary it is to feel nothing. Riley, the main character in the film, does not open up to her parents about what is going on inside her head because she has basically shut down and cannot feel joy or sadness. That is why the characters Joy and Sadness disappear from "Mission Control," which controls all of Riley's head, leaving her to only feel Anger, Disgust, and Fear. Without the ability to feel sad, she cannot open up about her true feelings which cause her to slip into a further depression and to then start feeling almost nothing. This movie is a wake-up call to society, screaming for us to give in to our feelings and to stop fighting them.

Empirical Research



Although, many believe that mental illness is not a real thing and according to Thomas Szasz it is just a “myth,” and people just bring it upon themselves. People are medicalizing morality and the typical dilemmas and struggles of human life. So nothing is necessarily wrong with them because it is not a real “disease,” because mental signifies brain, so people believe that one is born with this mental illness, or they decide to bring this upon themselves. Many argue that Disney films do not bring that behavior upon children or show the message that mental illness is not an issue. Despite it is seen that mental illness would not be categorized as a disease does not mean that people struggle with it on a day to day basis, and the discrimination they face with it. Specifically among children programs, such as Disney films where they are depicted with bad behavior towards the character showing a mental illness which influences a child that those people are not “normal”. Therefore, allowing society to not be understanding that it is an affecting serious issue that should be aware of. Despite a Disney films message in a film, children will always copy what is seen on television because they think it is okay since the character is doing it.


In conclusion, as one can see mental illness affects how one thinks, feels and acts. It determines how one handles stress, making choices, and relations to others. Mental illnesses can range from anxiety and mood disorders that have a severe effect on one's emotions and motivation, to psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, that affects perception or sense with things like hallucinations. It ranges from mild to serious illnesses but these conditions should not be ignored and why awareness and action to mental health are important; especially among children programs, where mental illness is more depicted on. How these Disney films and other children television programs portray mental illness it shows how children will act towards people who struggle with a mental disorder.

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