Representation Matters: Mental Illness In The Media

For better or for worse, television has had and will continue to have a major influence on the modern, first-world society. Specifically, the way minorities are represented on screen is indicative of the way they are viewed in real life, which is why analyzing the portrayals of minority characters is so important. However, because “minority” is such a broad term, for the purpose of length I’d like to focus on the representation of mentally ill people in the media.

As a girl who deals with mental illness, I can recognize first hand the gross inaccuracies and tropes projected onto mentally ill characters. One common example is the idea that love, particularly in a romantic sense, can easily “cure” mental illnesses. One well-known offender of this trope is The Silver Linings Playbook. Starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as two mentally ill adults, “The Silver Linings Playbook” follows these characters as they fall in love. Throughout the movie, their relationship seems to push their mental health into a completely different direction. While love is implied to be the cause for this change, the movie doesn't seem to fully represent the healthy, realistic ways that people deal with mental illness. This romance-driven "cure" has appeared in countless popular films throughout the years. Far too often, mental illness is portrayed as something that can be easily resolved by simply finding the right person (like in It's Kind of a Funny Story). As nice as that would be, it is, unfortunately, miles from the truth. While having a good support system can be very helpful when dealing with a mental illness, it's impossible to love someone's mental illness away. It is possible, though, to love them regardless of their mental illness. 

Another harmful trope is the idea that psychotic people are inherently evil. This is perhaps the most common, or at least the most recognizable trope, as this idea is projected everywhere in the entertainment industry, especially in shows or movies in the horror genre. Last year, Split from director Shyamalan made a big splash at the box office. In the critic community, while given many positive ratings, it also gained negative feedback for its inaccurate and demonizing portrayal of dissociative personality disorder. Split isn't by any stretch the first movie to push people with mental illnesses, specifically psychotic or personality disorders, into the role of the villain. From Psycho to Halloween to Silence of the Lambs, mental illness is the driving force behind every atrocity and scare. The terrifying protagonists of these movies and many more have become the faces of mental illness, driving people to the conclusion that mentally ill people are inherently violent and dangerous. While it is a fact that some violent crimes are carried out by people with psychotic illness, this is a completely inaccurate generalization. In fact, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators. Mentally ill people make up a large portion of the homeless population, and psychiatric facilities still make the news today with reports of abuse against patients. These situations put mentally ill people in more danger than the supposed threat that they pose. Although some people with mental illnesses may have violent or scary thoughts/compulsions, they aren't necessarily violent people. There's a difference between having a thought and acting on it. 

In addition to the negative portrayal of mental illnesses, there's also the fact that they are generally portrayed in such a one-dimensional way. While mentally ill people are ever-present in the horror genre, representation for us outside of that realm is few and far between, and what we’re left with are underdeveloped, undiverse shadows of our real experiences. All people are different. Therefore, the way mental illnesses affect all people is different. Our experiences don't all fit into the same formula in which we are represented in television. 

Finally, there's the general romanticization of mental illnesses. Bringing attention to mental illnesses is one thing. But glamorizing them and using them to spice up a story is another. 13 Reasons Why, a show centered around a teen’s suicide, has been infamously accused of this, and not unfoundedly. The show claims to advocate for visibility for people who struggle with self-harm and depression, but the message put forth by the show only endangers those very people. 13RW portrays suicide as a successful revenge, not as a tragedy. Psychologists and critics, in response to this glorified representation of suicide, have explicitly condemned the show for this, pointing out that such a portrayal, along with the graphic details of the suicide, might result in copycat situations. In fact, a recent report stated that a 23-year-old in Peru who committed suicide and left behind tapes was very likely influenced by the hit Netflix show. Mental illness in 13RW isn't a theme that's accurately addressed; it's a plot device that drives the drama of the show and adds “interest” to the characters. Hannah Baker’s depression isn't an obstacle she overcomes and learns to live with, but a quirk that adds to her “not like other girls” whimsy. Additionally, if the well-being of mentally ill teens and young adults were really at the heart of the show, the dangerously explicit and graphic scenes wouldn't be so prolonged for the sheer sake of impact. Instead, the show would demonstrate that the struggles of depression and self-harm can be overcome by reaching or for help. 13RW takes an opportunity to show at-risk viewers hope and instead gives a devastating, dreary conclusion for all the characters. Mental illnesses are a daily fact of life for many people, but they aren't quirky, fresh plot devices waiting to be used and discarded. They're difficult to live with. They're exhausting. 

When mentally ill people are constantly villainized, stigmatized, and stereotyped in the media, then society inevitably buys into that false image that has been painted. The media has irrefutably contributed to society's negative attitude towards people with mental illnesses. This negative attitude has significantly built up the stigma around mentally ill people today that makes it so hard to discuss our experiences and feelings.

The influence of television doesn't have to be so harmful. If proper representation were applied, the media could do so much to erase the stigma of mental illness. What if they could show mentally ill people in a more diverse and rounded way? Show POC with mental illnesses? Show LGBT people with mental illnesses? Show boys with mental illnesses? Additionally, what if they could show that mental illnesses and the symptoms they come with are normal and not necessarily "scary" or "weird"? Show people with mental illnesses as real people, living their lives? Mental health issues could be normalized. A healthy discussion could come into the mainstream!

For example, take one of my personal favorite characters, Sameen Shaw, from the recently concluded cyber-punk CBS series Person of Interest. In addition to being a bisexual WOC, Sameen had a diagnosed personality disorder. While it was a recognized and discussed part of her character, Sameen’s personality disorder never caused her to be portrayed as a monster, and it wasn't the only aspect of her character. Instead, she was portrayed in the same heroic light as the other major characters of the show. While this realistic, positive representation flew, for the most part, criminally under the radar of most TV critics and viewers, it has been a popular topic of discussion among the show’s fan base, many of whom have declared the positive effects of having a non-villainized portrayal of their experiences on TV. If such portrayals appeared more frequently and in more popular media forms, that small wave of positive effects could build and touch the lives of millions of people.

The media isn't solely responsible for the struggles that mentally ill people face today, and it isn't the sole solution to dismantling the stigma that has been built around us. However, if our voices were magnified and our stories were told with accuracy, we could make a real change in society’s attitudes towards mental health. The influence of television in the modern world isn't going to go away anytime soon. So, shouldn’t we make the best of it?