OliviaErickson and SireeshRamesh, Editors-in-Chief
As a preface to this article, I would like to acknowledge the fact that mental disorders are real, legitimate afflictions and affect nearly 450 million people worldwide, according to the WHO.
The stigmatization of mental disorders has a long and deep-rooted history in America. In the 1800s, patients with schizophrenia were thought to be possessed by demons and were commonly thrown into crowded and unsanitary mental asylums. Psychoanalysis from the 20th century brought with it the idea that electroshock therapy and lobotomies could cure emotional disorders like depression and anxiety. Even today, when suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15-29 year-olds, only a fifth of Americans with diagnosable or self-reported mental disorders chose to see a mental health provider.
The negative perceptions surrounding mental health treatment have thus become a problem many people, organizations and movements have worked to solve. The progressivism of the 1970s inspired a deinstitutionalization of mental asylums in favor of more open community centers. Additionally, the Psychiatric Survivors Movement pushed for public education and media that would bring light to emotional disorders and their treatability. It’s these movements, in part, that brought us “Jacob’s Ladder” or “A Beautiful Mind,” works whose protagonists have mental disorders but are still sympathetic and appealing to a broad audience.
The question is when the media’s portrayal of emotional and mental disorders goes past simply creating an acceptance of it in society to fostering a romanticism of these disorders. Recent releases and trends in pop culture seem to suggest that this is becoming a legitimate concern. And as impressionable, young people consume media at ever-increasing rates, it may be time we as a society again step back and reconsider how we portray mental and emotional disorders.
Among the worst of the perpetrators is the Netflix Original, Thirteen Reasons Why. While the novel version of this story was insightful and touching, the television show version felt cheap and exploitative. In the trademark scene, in which the protagonist, Hannah, slits her wrist, she looks beautiful. The scene itself is difficult to watch, but the entire show centers around the fact that everyone thinks more highly of her now that she is dead. That kind of plotline has a few major problems: For anyone who actually struggles with suicidal thoughts, an entire show devoted to reinforcing the idea that “people will finally like you when you’re dead” is simply not the right idea. Additionally, the show paints a picture of this beautiful, enigmatic, misunderstood girl who commits suicide. The problem is, in real life, people who are depressed are not beautiful. They are not cool. Depressed people are not pretty; they are struggling–and not in the cool artist way either. Then, the problem progresses when any unknowing teenage girl who isn’t getting enough attention at home or in her friend group decides that she wants to be that cool, mysterious girl, and plays depression. Now, everyone is depressed, but no one ends up getting the help they need, because the majority of the time, when someone is depressed, they aren’t trying to shove it down your throat that they are, so the ones who are loud and proud faking it get the attention of well-meaning adults.
Another film made on Netflix, To the Bone, makes eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa look elegant. The movie does show the struggles that people afflicted with these diseases face, but then throws some twisted love story between the positively gorgeous Lily Collins (of course someone that pretty had to have the eating disorder) and the sole male suffering from an eating disorder. I understand this movie meant well, but it is the epitome of the romanticism of mental disorders.
Now, the romanticism occurring in the media has leaked into entire friend groups and social circles. People have turned mental disorders into practical jokes to be announced and laughed about during their lunch periods. I would like to make clear that the people making jokes are not the problem; we can’t help what we find funny. The problem lies in the overall desensitization of the immense weight of these diseases; they have become so casual that we can laugh about them.
Broadcasting companies, *cough cough* Netflix, need to be more cognizant of the weight of mental disorders and impressionability of young people viewing their depictions in the media. It should not be trendy to be suffering from a mental disorder.