Can television shows change how mental health is approached?
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Canada for individuals between the ages of 15 and 24, with about 20% of Canadians experiencing mental illness in their lifetime. The numbers are staggering, yet the truth that they reveal is even more surprising. Constituting a broad spectrum of disorders, mental illnesses can be biologically inherent conditions that negatively impact one’s mood, thinking and/or behavior. However, despite their increasing prevalence, many individuals hold inaccurate perceptions of individuals afflicted with mental illness. This lack of awareness reinforces the stigma surrounding mental illness, and gives rise to discriminative behaviors towards those who are mentally ill. In fact, many individuals consider stigma to be the most challenging aspect of their condition, preventing them from receiving necessary treatment and expressing their inner thoughts.
Research suggests that inaccurate media portrayals of mental illness may significantly contribute to the growing stigma surrounding it. Analysis of media depictions over the years reveals that individuals afflicted with mental illness are usually labeled with terms such as “incompetent”, “dangerous”, “slovenly” and “undeserving”. In addition, the behavior of these individuals is consistently classified as violent, childish, unstable and unpredictable. Such negative terms seem to suggest that individuals afflicted with mental disorders are incapable of leading high functioning and self-sufficient lives. Moreover, categorizing such individuals as part of one broad population that shares the exact same characteristics distances individuals with mental illness from those who are “normal”. Furthermore, debilitating labels evident in children’s literature, movies and popular fiction that refer to such individuals as “mad”, “mental cases” and “insane” paint a negative picture of mental illness from an early age. Coupled with the fact that mass media is one of the primary sources for gaining an understanding of mental disorders, unfavorable media depictions significantly contribute to the widespread stigma associated with mental illness.
As a result of this realization, screenwriters have recently recognized the need to incorporate humanized and accurate characterizations of mental illness. One such faithful media depiction is the Netflix original series “13 Reasons Why”, which was released on March 30th 2017 and has been named as Netflix’s most popular series, eliciting over 3.5 million social impressions in its first week of release. Centered around the protagonist Hannah Baker who has committed suicide, viewers are exposed to serious issues such as bullying, rape, slut shaming, and depression, all of which constitute the ‘13 Reasons Why’ Hannah decides to end her life. Narrated through a series of tapes left behind by the protagonist, the show has garnered widespread speculation regarding its ability to accurately portray the realities of mental health concerns in today’s society.
Specifically, ‘13 Reasons Why’ accurately depicts the process by which the build-up of several typical life struggles, non-ideal circumstances and hurtful situations may manifest themselves into suicidal thoughts. Contrary to mainstream belief, Hannah’s suicidality is attributed to several specific factors that gradually take a toll on her mental health, rather than just one traumatic experience. Moreover, the school setting and portrayal of Hannah as a seemingly typical teenager conveys the notion that this may happen to anyone. Hence, the show effectively prompts viewers to pay close attention to their surroundings and recognize potential warning signs.
The show also challenges and negates many assumptions regarding individuals who experience suicidal ideation. For instance, Hannah reveals that upon sharing her suicidal thoughts to one of her teachers and not receiving the desired emotional support, she came to the conclusion that nobody cared about her; hence, validating her reasons to commit suicide. This challenges the wide held misconception that suicidal individuals are interested in solely ending their lives, as it conveys that in reality, such individuals desire to merely be understood and appreciated by others. Death is only perceived as their last option to end the lingering pain of neglect and rejection. This notion is further emphasized in the show when Hannah’s classmates perceive her anonymous note conveying her suicidality to be written by an individual solely seeking increased attention and popularity. Unfortunately, this attitude reflects the current mindset of mainstream society and hinders the creation of supportive networks in schools and workplace environments. By exposing this harsh reality to its viewers, ‘13 Reasons Why’ enables open dialogue to happen by initiating conversations pertaining to the realistic underpinnings of suicidality.
However, critics also report that ‘13 Reasons Why’ does not capture the true complexity of suicidality in its entirety. Specifically, that the show thus far does not portray the role of mental illness in suicidality. While circumstantial shortcomings may significantly contribute to suicidal ideation, mental illness as a result of biological predisposition may also influence suicidality. In fact, about 90% of individuals who commit suicide have a clinically diagnosable mental disorder. Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder and Schizophrenia are amongst the majour mental illnesses such individuals may be afflicted with. Thus, portraying that suicidality is solely due to a series of negative events is greatly misleading. Most importantly, this message may be toxic to viewers experiencing suicidal thoughts, as they may inaccurately perceive that their feelings are only valid if there are specific underlying circumstances and “reasons” to be blamed.
Hence, while season one of ‘13 Reasons Why’ serves as a very effective conversation starter regarding the urgency and importance of mental health issues, it is crucial for viewers to understand that suicidality is complex and multifactorial. In other words, there may be many reasons why someone commits suicide, in addition to the ‘13 Reasons Why’ portrayed in the show.
Aside from ‘13 Reasons Why’, other effective fictional portrayals of mental illness include the movies “A Beautiful Mind” and “Homeland”, which aim to challenge the status quo pertaining to individuals affected by Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder, respectively. TV shows such as “You’re the Worst”, “Lady Dynamite” and “Jessica Jones” also attempt to change the way mental health concerns are approached by providing viewers a thorough recount of such experiences.
Thus, by consistently providing accurate, comprehensive and humanized depictions of mental illness, TV creators may begin to change long-held mindsets and misconceptions regarding mental health concerns. The resulting awareness and education may break barriers to mental health care and disintegrate the perceived taboo nature of such conditions.