Mental Health and Media: How TV and Film Can Influence Attitudes on Mental Health

If you head to Netflix right now and type “mental health” into the search bar, nearly two dozen television shows and films will be listed. Try “mental illness”, “crazy” or “insane”, and you’ll return several dozen more. There’s no denying that mental health is a heavily-used trope on the silver screen – whether it’s a character’s quirk or a plot device, its depiction can ultimately become a key influencer on an audience’s perceptions of various mental illnesses or behavioural issues.

The dramatization of illness for entertainment is somewhat of a moral dilemma – is it ethically defensible or something that the onward march of progress and sensibility will inevitably show that our shows lacked grace? In today’s blogpost, we’ll take a look at some of the ways that today’s media is impacting our understanding and approach to mental illness. On a brighter note, we’ll take a look at some recent programs that have done a better job than most.

Romanticizing Self-Harm and Suicide:

There was a swirl of controversy in 2017 after Netflix dramatized the book series 13 Reasons Why into a televised series. The show, narrated in part by a girl who has committed suicide and the boy who loved her, follows her complex plan to achieve justice and understanding for herself from beyond the grave. With its high school setting and cast, critics argued that the show made suicide look cool or justifiable and could be a dangerous influencer on impressionable minds.

It’s hardly the first media to do so (remember Romeo & Juliet? From English class) but hopefully, with more voices speaking out, it’ll be one of the last. “Suicide Contagion” is a real phenomenon: exposure to someone else’s suicide in real life or media depicting it can increase your likelihood of considering or committing suicide. It’s important to do what we can to reduce its glorification, especially among younger audiences – it’s among the top five causes of death for adolescents and young adults.

Mentally Ill? Must be Violent/Unhinged:

More than 20 years ago, a study found that depictions of mentally ill individuals in prime-time television were nearly 10 times more violent than the general population of television characters, and 10 to 20 times more violent when compared to those suffering mental illness in the US population.

Since then, the number of TV shows has exploded: in 2017, 487 original shows aired – compared to 182, fifteen years prior. Following that logic, audiences are being exposed to more-and-more instances that depict those suffering from mental illness as violent, unstable and a threat. This creates stigma and it can cost lives: those suffering from mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during police encounters and some suggest that stigma might influence the decision to use lethal force.

In fact, those suffering from mental illness are more likely to harm themselves than others. These skewed depictions can be irresponsible and can create real life risk for those suffering from mental illness.

Marginalizing Medication and Inventing Superpowers: The show’s main character must solve the big dilemma but the medication they take to keep their behaviour in check muddies their gifts. They stop taking their medication, allowing their mind to “clear up” and save the day. While the “disability superpower” trope can be affirming and positive in some cases, depictions that promote medication as a barrier to brilliance are dangerous, particularly to those suffering from mental illness. One of the worst recent offenders: Split, a movie which depicts a man who stops taking his medication, allowing his 23 distinct separate personalities to manifest – one of which literally turns him into an unstoppable, superhuman creature.

This is another example of the impact of romanticizing mental illness: depression won’t make your seem smart and brooding but it could make you irritable with digestive issues to boot. Not only are mental health issues not a superpower but medication can sometimes be the only way to live a happy and healthy life.

Check These Shows/Films Out:

Are any programs out there doing a good job of creating a better narrative about mental illness? While there are certainly plenty of offenders, some recent television shows and films have been educational rather than sensational. Here’s a few:

  1. Bojack Horseman: Praised for its “brave depiction” of depression, animated series Bojack Horseman is self-aware and unromantic in its depiction of mental health issues, while still delivering as an enjoyable dark comedy.
  • Crazy-Ex Girlfriend: While “crazy” might not be the most woke adjective to use, the comedy does a good job at depicting mental health issues, beginning with a fatigue-driven crisis that ultimately delivers the show’s main character to the hometown of her ex-boyfriend. Like Bojack, Crazy-Ex Girlfriend delivers without being preachy or using kid’s gloves – it depicts the effects of mental illness as they are, without rose tinted glasses.
  • Homeland: The series, now heading into its 8th season follows Carrie, a CIA operative  battling terrorists – and bipolar disorder. Why I’ve included it on the list: early on in the show, we see the split between medicated and unmedicated Carrie – how quickly she loses control of things, including her family and career when she choosing to go cold turkey on her medication. The show also depicts a strong and intelligent person who suffers from mental illness – showing that it doesn’t have to make one less capable of living a successful life.

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