Why The Media's Portrayal Of Mental Illness Is Dangerous
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Health and Wellness

Media Romanticizes Mental Illnesses And Frankly, It's Dangerous

This is something we've got to take seriously.

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Media Romanticizes Mental Illnesses And Frankly, It's Dangerous
13 Reasons Why / Netflix

Trigger Warning: This article contains content surrounding mental health that may be triggering to some readers.

As someone who is a part of Gen Z, I have grown up consuming different forms of media. Through growing up and educating myself, I saw many flaws that the media has portrayed when it comes to mental illness. The biggest issue would be that of the romanticism of mental illness.

1. Lack of POC representation 

We are not strangers to the fact that the majority of the media we consume is portrayed by white people. It is very rare that we are presented and educated on a person of color who is suffering from a mental illness. More often than not, when we are shown a person of color who has a mental illness in TV shows, movies, or books, it is often to showcase the harm they have done. In a sense, we have been taught to sympathize with white people suffering from mental illness.

In light of the countless school shootings that have occurred, we see a primary example of sympathizing with whites, as can be demonstrated by Columbine — one of the most famous school shootings. In this specific case, two white middle-class Colorado students planned to bomb their high school, and upon failing, they shot and killed 12 people. Many reporters claimed that this occurred as a result of violent video games, music, or even bullying. An online community called "Columbiners," discusses different aspects of the shooting. These discussions range from defending the perpetrators to discussing their romantic attraction towards them, leading us to the romanticization of the two shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Many of these Columbiners state that they relate to how hopeless and angry they felt, even going on to say that no one realized the struggles they were going through. It seems that many have a sense of empathy for Eric and Dylan, as it is believed to be that they were just misunderstood or needed to find love to prevent the shooting.

As for any person of color that had done or had been accused of doing harm, mental illness is thrown in their face with venom. Many say "that's no excuse" or "they could have gotten help." It is difficult for POC to get help for a mental illness, especially since it's been planted in our brains that only white people can get help and not be misunderstood, leading to narratives where whites are often given a redemption arc while POC remain vilified for the same, or less violent, acts.

2. The idea that love is the cure for mental illness

Through TV shows, movies, books, and other media, more times than not, we are given a female protagonist who is suffering from a mental illness that meets a boy, ultimately leading them to fall in love, and then she is magically cured of her mental illness. We are fed the idea that love fixes all and is some sort of "magic pill" that will cure you of any hardships.

This can be seen in season one of "American Horror Story," where we meet Tate Langdon and Violet Harmon, two "tortured" souls who are drawn to each other because of their shared unhappiness. There are multiple scenes in this season where their relationship romanticized her depression. In one particular scene where Violet tries to die by suicide, Tate is seen dragging her into the bathtub making her throw up the pills she had just taken. He begins kissing her head as if to reassure her that it will get better. He is given this hero complex even going on to say things like, "I had this idea that if you chose to die with me, then you wouldn't be so sad." In another scene where Violet is describing how no one there is happy, Tate goes on to say, "well yeah they are not like us, they are lonely, we have each other." Many fans claimed that they were the perfect couple because they were engaged in what many would describe as "mad love" where passion conquers all. Forgetting the numerous criminal activities Tate had taken part in, many felt compelled to root for his happiness and redemption.

Other than TV shows, this idea that love fixes all can be seen in books. An example being in "My Heart and Other Black Holes" by Jasmine Warga, where two teenagers, Aysel and Roman, meet on a website called Suicide Partners. The author wrote certain scenes as if she were glamorizing depression by describing depression as this beautiful thing, diminishing the suffering that a depressed person faces. One quote showcasing this is, "You're like a gray sky. You're beautiful, even though you don't want to be." There are countless other quotes like this throughout the book. There is nothing wrong with adding romance into a book about mental illness, as long as it's not the central purpose or resolution. In the book, Aysel comes to this conclusion that she does not want to die because she finally has someone that cares about her and helped her change. Just like that, her depression was cured, which is not realistic.

Depression is not something you can change or stop overnight just because you found someone who cares about you. It takes time and understanding and is constantly something that must be taken care of.

3. Instead of raising awareness, it may cause more harm 

The most common reason for wanting mental illnesses in the media is to discuss and bring awareness to them. In most circumstances, the way a show films scenes to showcase someone with depression or other mental illnesses can easily be misinterpreted. This can be seen in "13 Reasons Why," when their intention for showing Hannah Baker's suicide scene was to showcase the devastating outcomes of depression if left untreated. Though, did we really need a three-minute scene without a trigger warning? To other teens, this scene is especially triggering for the reason that it may plant the idea in people's heads that the way Hannah Baker died by suicide is the way to go or could have easily triggered someone who has gone through that experience to relapse in self-harming. In fact, many turn to shows that discuss these hard topics to see how they can begin seeking help.

The whole first season of "13 Reasons Why" went on without any trigger warnings or resources posted. Even when many people advocating for Hannah's suicide scene to have a trigger warning or even be removed, it took the show two years after it originally aired to finally realize the negative impact this scene held.

This is the distinct difference between authors and screenwriters that try to write from their own experiences, a term in publishing often called "own voices," and others that see the success of books that involve mental illness, leading them to believe that they can write about it. A quick google search does not tell you everything you need to know about mental illnesses. This leads readers to believe that they are undermining what mental illnesses feel like, and it may even lead to people falsely self-diagnosing themselves.

Self-diagnosing is as easy as picking up a book about someone with bipolar disorder, seeing their symptoms, and thinking, "I have similar symptoms so I must be bipolar." It's a common misconception of people googling symptoms they have and believing what they read instead of asking to see a doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist. When writers focus on how they can make depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses poetic or "beautiful" they take away the reality of the pain that real people face and they put their own romantic twist on it.

There are countless other ways that are dangerous when it comes to romanticizing mental illness. The best thing to do to help combat it is to bring awareness to this issue and educate others. Mental illness is still a huge taboo to society, so by helping people realize that romanticizing it leads to more harm than good, we are one step closer to educating others on mental illness.

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