Misinformation and Undereppresentation of Mental Health in Media

The topic of mental health has taken center stage recently, and with it has come numerous TV shows and movies attempting to portray mental illness. However, when the public is shown a false reality of what it is like to have a mental illness, it can be potentially dangerous and undermines those who have experienced it firsthand. Not to mention the lack of diversity among the illnesses showcased. It seems as if the focus is put on anxiety and depression, while millions suffer from and deserve the representation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia to name a few.
One show that has been met with substantial criticism is “Thirteen Reasons Why.” The Netflix original was released in March of 2017 with the intentions of creating an important conversation about mental health. Although, even with its large and supportive audience, it faced an equally large amount of scrutiny for a reason. The show follows the aftermath of teenager Hannah Baker’s suicide. She sends thirteen tapes to those she blamed for her death explaining how her suicide is their fault. She was someone who was bubbly and social, but faced bullying, sexual assault, and depression. This is the harsh reality for many students around the world, but “Thirteen Reasons Why” made damaging mistakes in how they portrayed Hannah’s experience. The most blatant problem was the scene in which Hannah commits suicide. It was disturbing, gory, and not something appropriate for a show depicting and aimed towards teenagers. In fact, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention advises that “graphic depictions and messaging that doesn’t offer hope can actually cause a contagion effect for people at risk for suicide.” This means that showing suicide as a solution and romanticizing it as a kind of revenge can actually encourage it. The show was irresponsible and emphasized the flawed way in which America perceives mental illness. However, this can serve as a lesson, helping future filmmakers understand the importance of showing recovery rather than glorifying mental illness.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adults are living with a mental illness and about 49.5% of adolescents suffer from any mental disorder. In addition to this, there are “…more than 200 classified types of mental illness.” Among these illnesses, there are varying levels of severity and symptoms that arise. Although, the only ones that seem to be portrayed in the media are depression and anxiety. Both illnesses are extremely difficult to cope with and affect millions of people. There is no doubt that they must be faced head-on and by no means should they be unrecognized. However, when society wants to have a discussion about mental health, just acknowledging these two gives a narrow perspective of mental illness in general. As a result, certain mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder (DID), and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are given stereotypes that trap those living with them. The movie “Split” has recently been accused of insensitivity because the villain was diagnosed with DID and this potentially demonizes the illness. While “Split” is supposed to be unrealistic and a horror movie, it still makes DID seem like something to fear and unintentionally stereotypes this disorder. To avoid this the media should be portraying an array of mental illnesses, allowing the public to understand the full scope of how it affects everyday people.
One of the most successful ways of giving an honest outlook to mental illness is through documentary form. This is effective because it is more raw and comes from a place of real experience. The BBC series “Don’t Call Me Crazy” follows residents of McGuinness Unit in Manchester, a mental ward housing teens. The show covers disorders such as anorexia, schizophrenia, depression, OCD, anxiety, and self-harm. Of course, there are disturbing moments, but that helps the audience grasp the pain these teens are going through. It gives the audience an understanding of mental illness that focuses on recovery rather than suffering, which is this most important way society should capture mental illness. It is also important for this society to understand that there is nothing desirable or witty about having a mental illness. Audiences should be advocating for the reality behind the script.