Does Accurate Representation Really Matter?
I bet we can all think of a time when we sat down to watch one of our favorite TV shows or movies and saw a character on the screen struggling with mental health. Whether it was a good or bad representation, mental illness and addiction have become very popular character traits and plot lines within modern TV and film. Most of my favorite shows discuss mental illness in one way or another, but not all of them give mental health the justice it deserves or engage in meaningful conversations about dealing with mental illness. This leads me to ask the question: does accurate representation of mental health in the media really matter?
For the past several decades, mental illness has been depicted poorly by the media and has directly increased the stigmatization of individuals suffering from mental illness. Oftentimes, violent characters are labeled as “crazy” or “psycho” and deemed mentally ill. This demonization and writing-off of characters suffering from mental illness is extremely harmful and has real-life impacts. By portraying characters with mental illnesses as violent and potentially dangerous, the media is stigmatizing mental health even more and leading society to believe mental illness is equated to violence. However, in reality, individuals suffering from mental illness are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than they are to be the perpetrator of violence.
Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder (DID), and borderline personality disorder (BPD) historically have been harmfully represented by the media. Sufferers are often depicted as crazy and violent offenders who shouldn’t be allowed to participate in society. This common trope could not be further from the truth. Mass media frequently perpetuates damaging stereotypes and spreads misinformation about these disorders. Television and movies typically present characters dealing with these mental illnesses as violent and erratic, refusing or ignoring professional help, and overly dramatic. Since mass media is one of the primary sources of information on these specific disorders for most people, these stereotypes can be interpreted as reality and further the stigma around schizophrenia, bipolar, DID, and BPD.
Another detrimental trend that has popped up all over mass media in recent years has been the glorification and romanticization of suicide in pop culture. One TV show that immediately comes to mind is Netflix’s original series “13 Reasons Why,” which was one of the most talked-about shows of 2017 and watched by teens and adults all over the world. I’ll admit it, as a sophomore in high school at the time, I binge-watched the show in a week to keep up with my friends, who were all talking about it. I remember feeling uncomfortable about the show when I watched it but was still sucked into it at the same time. Very few shows I had watched up to this point discussed mental health or depression, which made me enjoy watching a show where I saw characters I could relate to.
However, it wasn’t until years later that I recognized what a negative impact the show had on me and so many other people. I was so badly craving to be able to relate to someone that I viewed “13 Reasons Why” as an appropriate show to understand mental illness. Not only does it portray the narrative of suicide as a teenage revenge fantasy in order to traumatize an entire town following the aftermath of a young girl’s suicide, it also misrepresents and dramatizes sexual assault and substance abuse. Dr. Agnes Costello, a psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine, explains that “while [these types of shows] make for addictive TV, and it does start a discussion about teen suicide, my concern is that this type of show validates the faulty, fatalistic thinking that mental health professionals try to move teens away from.”
With all of this being said, it is important that we take what we see in the media with a grain of salt. This doesn’t mean we can’t keep watching our favorite TV shows and movies because they don’t accurately represent mental health. We just have to remember that these characters are usually not experiencing the same reality as those individuals who suffer from mental health problems. By educating ourselves about mental health and advocating for more accurate representation on TV and in film, we are working towards ending the stigmatization of mental health and affecting real change for everyone who struggles with mental health.