Muddling of Mental Illness

Back in 2017, the television show “13 Reasons Why” aired. The show presented the story of a fictional teenage girl, Hannah, who leaves behind 13 recordings on her cassette after killing herself. Each recording blames a person who supposedly played a role in Hannah’s decision to commit suicide… Dark, I know. The show drew massive pushback, many critics claiming that mental illness and suicide were glorified. “13 Reasons Why” is just one of the many TV shows that brings attention to mental health. Whether or not the critics are justified in their concerns, there is no doubt that “13 Reasons Why” and other shows — like “Normal People”, “This is Us”, “The Queen’s Gambit”, and the recently popular “Euphoria” — shine a light on and normalize mental illness.

The Girls of Euphoria: Issues Faced By Today's Teens

Photo caption: Zendaya, who plays the main character of “Euphoria”, Rue: a teenage girl who copes with her many mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar…) by abusing substances.

We constantly hear that in order to ameliorate mental health problems, we must “spread awareness” about the issue and “destigmatize” it. While on paper, these attempted solutions seem good, in practice, they are causing harm. Society has already done both of these things, (as shown by the plethora of media content surrounding mental health.) In fact, I believe that society has done things so well, (rather, so poorly,) that the overdrawn attention to mental illness and extreme destigmatization of it has “normalized” it, ultimately causing us to forget the severity of mental illness. Apparently, now more than ever before, people suffer from mental health issues. In fact, it is estimated that “nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness” (52.9 million in 2020.)” Why? Why are there so many people suffering if we have much such “progress” in shining light on the issue and destigmatizing it? As the psychopharmacology revolution is surging, medicine is advancing, and media is “destigmatizing” mental health, why has the number of mentally ill in the United States skyrocketed? (If you want a good read on these questions, “Anatomy of an Epidemic” is a great place to start.)

I’m not going to argue that mental illness has been glorified, (although in some forms of media it definitely has.) However, I do believe that mental illness has been normalized. The overwhelming prevalence of mental health in TV shows and on social media has led to distorted notions about what is and what isn’t mental illness. Terms like depression and anxiety are thrown around so haphazardly lately: we characterize normal feelings (like being sad or being anxious) as mental illnesses. Being sad or being anxious is not the same as having depression or having anxiety. The media has muddled the distinction between normal emotions and severe mental illnesses. The Instagram reel below depicts this well… the caption encourages viewers to continue watching posts about depression #trendy. How helpful!

Vanderbilt students themselves have made mental illness into a meme:

Photo caption: meme from Vanderbilt student Facebook group. 

 It’s rare to come across a show, (or any form of media for that matter,) that accurately and compassionately depicts mental health. Expecting immoral, money-driven “influencers” or the general media to stop producing content that has these negative effects is unrealistic. As is relying on policy-makers to remedy this issue. When it comes down to it, we must take it into our own hands: being extra cognizant of how mental illness is being portrayed, being questioning of the media and the information we consume, and not getting on the bandwagon of turning emotions into illnesses. 

The Band-Wagon Effect; An Ineffectual Decision Making Mechanism. | by The  Pen Map | Medium

4 thoughts on “Muddling of Mental Illness

  1. This is such an interesting post! I really like how you talk about the issue of depicting mental health issues on screen: it’s not just a portrayal of mental illness, but it glorifies and normalizes mental illness. As you talk about, most of these shows don’t actually portray these people receiving therapy or help, and sometimes, like in Queen’s Gambit, mental illness is seen as inextricably linked to her talent.
    I thought that the point you made about the rise in mental illness was interesting. Everyone feels sad and has anxiety about things sometimes, but actual conditions have been made into something that people are identifying with without diagnosis or seeking help; it’s become a blanket term people throw around. Furthermore, this normalization makes people who do need to receive treatment less likely to do so, because therapy is often not portrayed positively on these shows.
    You didn’t talk about this as much, but I think one of the things that is implicit in your post is that only some mental divergences are normalized in this way. We don’t see many shows where the main character is narcissistic, or sociopathic, or even many shows that feature many characters with ASD or down syndrome. Shows, and people, are actively choosing to identify with and normalize only a few mental illnesses, and even then, the portrayals are unrealistic. Even worse, like with 13 Reasons Why, sometimes these shows are linked to people practicing self-harm or even committing suicide.
    I think the most important point that you make is that media, despite constantly talking about mental health, aren’t actually discussing mental health in a realistic way, and that’s what makes the portrayals harmful.

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  2. I appreciated your post! I think you make a lot of promising points and many more that have already proven factual. However, I would approach the semantics in a different perspective. If I understand correctly, you stated that the normalization of mental illnesses, which lead to their de-stigmatization is the reason why there are so many people hopping on the “bandwagon.” However, I counter that perhaps it is the romanticization, rather than normalization, that causes teenagers, especially, to desire to identify with the traits they witness on the screen, believing they suffer from a condition. Teenagers are simply bound to watch whatever seems trendy and follow suit. I would further argue that there is a thin line between even romanticization and glorification, as glorification would deem mental illness and severe conditions as something to be worshiped, when romanticization just paints the illnesses as a more idealistic state of being that is not true. That romanticization, unfortunately, is the “drama” aspect of the shows you mentioned, and without it, there is less (pun unintended) substance to the plot. It essentially rakes in the viewers, and with an actress as popular as Zendaya playing a younger teenage character, the capital that the show producers earn is all that really matters, not the teens the show affects.
    I think we must consider how impressionable teenagers can be, while also considering their desire to be different and set apart from others. In that, to them, it seems a justifiable notion that to achieve such an identity entails suffering – though for the teens this is not just suffering, but something that reassuringly proves they are different.
    Although, I do completely agree with your point to always question the media we consume in order to stay cognizant of the world around us and how it affects us. I might add though, that part of why the numbers of people with mental illness may have gone up in recent years also point to such questioning that has brought people to realize that some of their behaviors are not exactly ‘normal.’ Prior to this, they may never have been validated in their experiences, and the benefit to true normalization is bringing people to enhance their own understanding of themselves.

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  3. I agree with the statement that mental health has been normalized. It is easy to see people talk about mental health and TV shows that deal with mental health. Many shows such as Euphoria or 15 reasons why shows extreme ends of action. This makes viewers believe to handle mental health like the characters in the TV show. For example after 15 reasons why teenage suicide rate increased. Yet, our current society currently lacks the approach to dealing with mental health. Many school events support mental health however, there are fewer events that allow students to ask a question about mental health.
    Also romanticizing mental health reminded me about how people often romanticize drugs. A lot of media often portrays drugs as artsy and trendy. Artists would use drugs as a way to create art which is similar in the case of mental health. By having this misconception about mental health, it is easy for people to neglect what mental health is and minimize what patients are going through.

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  4. I appreciate your criticism of the way teen culture has become “aware” of mental health, and how awareness on its own—if it is not accurate, meaningful, and care-based—can simply lead to more harm. This, in my opinion, has been a general theme within American society recently, where increased discourse and education surrounding an issue often exacerbates the issue itself (examples being protests and media coverage of police brutality actually leading to an increase in police brutality, or that rapists actually become more likely to rape when they learn about consent). One question this raises for me is, what kind of place for mental illness (as an unavoidant counterpart to mental health) do we want to carve out in society? Do we want mental illness to lie stagnant or to self-soothe in whatever ways people wish to (understanding that those ways will sometimes be addiction, violence, and self-neglect) or do we want to limit our media and discussions on mental illness to exclusively care-centered and productive ways of living healthily to whatever extent possible. Both sides have some clear issues, and I think you address very well the fact that talking about mental illness and living with mental illness is turning out to be much harder than some said it would be.

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