In recent years, mental illness has become a popular topic of discussion in various forms of mass media. As Western society has worked to break down barriers surrounding taboo subjects, we have challenged the stigma surrounding mental illness. This is undeniably a positive thing—stigma is one of the primary barriers preventing people with mental illness from seeking professional help.
However, this spread of recognition is introducing a new set of problems that need to be confronted before they get out of hand: mental illness is being both sensationalized and misrepresented.
TV has a long and complicated history with mental illness. Characters with mental illness are often portrayed as violent and dangerous, are sometimes played off as punchlines and mental health professionals such as psychiatrists commonly take on a villainous role. More recent shows like “This Is Us”and “Jessica Jones” have been doing a better job of portraying mental illness accurately, but not all modern TV has been following suit.
A few years ago, Netflix released a show called “13 Reasons Why.” You’ve probably heard of it—the first season quickly gained both popularity and criticism, sparking heated debates across the internet. In the show, the main character dies by suicide, and it’s framed as an act of revenge against her classmates who wronged her.
This portrayal of suicide is an awful misrepresentation—suicide is rarely planned out in such a methodical way. Additionally, there is little mention of mental illness in the first season, even though 46% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosed mental illness.
In the News
In mainstream news, mental illness is often portrayed inaccurately or carelessly. There has been a measure of improvement in the way news outlets report on mental illness. However, the news still tends to sensationalize stories involving mental illness and suicide. For example, in 2018, Kate Spade’s death by suicide was reported in all manners of problematic ways, including graphic details of how she died, photos of her body and headlines that focused on the act rather than the death.
Across Social Media
Social media has become a platform for young people to express themselves and connect with their peers, but it has also become a hub for romanticizing mental illness. In particular, tumblr has allowed teenagers and young adults to share and create unfiltered posts about mental illness.
While this open online discussion can help foster a sense of community, there has also been a trend of treating mental illness like it’s something that should be sought-after. Black-and-white photos of self-harm scars overlaid with sensationalized quotes are a common sight. One alarming image reads “I think suicidal people are just angels who want to go home.”
Why is This an Issue?
Sensationalizing mental illness can be harmful, especially for impressionable young teenagers. Those images of self-harm might encourage others to view mental illness as something that is “tragically beautiful.” Additionally, sensationalism can lead people to believe that mental illness is just a part of who they are, and that therapy is a “sham.” For example, memes that started out as a way to call people out for being dismissive of mental illness, have evolved into a way for people to excuse their own behavior and even scoff at the notion of seeking help.
More dangerously, suicide can be contagious. Studies show that when the news offers sensationalized stories of suicide or reports attempts in detail, suicide rates increase. The release of “13 Reasons Why”caused an uptick in searches related to suicide, which is concerning because research has shown that such searches correlate with actual suicides.
Personally, I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since I was in middle school. However, I didn’t want to admit to myself that I had mental illness for years. When I finally did, I didn’t open up to others for a while because I didn’t want to add to a culture of sensationalizing mental illness.
How Can We Do Better?
De-stigmatizing mental illness is important, and it’s wonderful that there have been increased conversations about mental health online. But we need to consider how the battle to reduce stigma has led to more nuanced problems in society. Moving forward, we need to call for more accurate portrayals in TV shows and movies that are grounded in research and lived experience.
When releasing stories involving mental illness and suicide, news outlets should be held accountable to follow guidelines such as the ones set by the American Psychological Association and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. And it’s important to raise awareness that focuses on how people can get help. Mental illness is like any other illness—you should want to get better, and you need to actively work towards it. That’s what people should be hearing online.
Jessie Yu is a 19-year-old undergraduate student at Virginia Tech. She has written several articles for her university's newspaper and is passionate about raising mental health awareness.
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