Now more than ever, there is a huge variety of avenues a person can explore in order to learn about mental illness. There are health and wellness blogs online and there are television shows and movies that portray some form of mental illness.
But as helpful as they may be, there are some downsides to learning about mental illness through the media. The media, specifically television and film, often present a very romanticized version of mental illness. This can lead to self-diagnosing, misconceptions about symptoms of mental illness and ineffective treatments for mental illness.
To romanticize the subject of mental illness means to deal with or describe it in an idealized or unrealistic fashion to make it seem better or more appealing than it really is.
The loudest dialogue condemning the romanticization of mental illness addresses the phenomenon on social media. While social media portrays mental illness in a sensationalized fashion, the perpetrators are often young people with mental illness themselves.
Young girls wearing shirts that say “cute but psycho” and posting sentiments such as “Suicidal people are angels who want to go home,” is problematic for a different reason. It’s likely that these are young people who are trying to understand their own mental illnesses but are doing so in an unhealthy way.
There’s a lot of focus on the negative ways that the media depicts mental illness. Mediums such as film, television and books are arguably the worst perpetrators of romanticizing mental illness. What makes them so problematic is that they are produced by adults and marketed towards impressionable youths with no previous knowledge of mental illness.
Here are a couple dangers that come with romanticizing mental illness.
1. It deters people from seeking therapy.
One of the most notorious examples is the show, “13 Reasons Why,” which portrays suicide as a viable option for revenge and every attempt to seek counseling goes terribly wrong.
According to the American Psychology Association, “an estimated 59 million people have received mental health treatment in the past two years, and that 80 percent of them have found it effective.” People are already afraid to seek therapy and shows that suggest that doing so is futile are incredibly harmful.
The 2004 film Garden State is a romantic comedy-drama film about a man with depression who travels back to his hometown to attend his mother’s funeral. There he meets a young woman who helps him to finally appreciate life by the end of the film. He’s been taking antidepressants since he was 10, but the only thing that could improve his mental health and well-being was romantic love.
Characters are shown as being healed from serious mental illnesses by being in a romantic relationship and this makes an inaccurate implication that you don’t need platonic relationships such as friends and family. This leads people to believe that romantic love specifically is a valid substitute for therapy and will help with mental illness.
Receiving love can help to improve your mood but mental illness is not a mood.
2. It alienates at-risk people.
Mental illness in the black community is stigmatized and the fact that mental illness is hardly portrayed from the perspective of minorities in fiction does not help.
Our most iconic portrayals of mental illness, “Girl Interrupted” and “The Black Swan”, star young stereotypically attractive white people. But the statistics are much more diverse. According to a 2017 study by the National Institute of Mental Health, the percentage of sufferers of anxiety disorder is consistently in the 20 percentile range from ages 18-59.
The highest rates of suicide were among adults ages 52 to 59 years. African Americans with socioeconomic stress are more likely to suffer from prolonged, chronic, and severely debilitating depression with heavy consequences on their level of daily functioning. They are also less likely to report it.
When fiction perpetuates an image of what the sufferer of mental illness should look like, those that don’t fit into that image can feel alienated. They might feel discouraged from telling others about their mental illness because other people won’t believe that they fit the mold of what mental illness should look like.
When it comes to mental illness, fiction is the first avenue that introduce the topic for a lot of people. This means that the creators of these works about mental illness have a huge responsibility to portray them accurately.
While there are people on social media who sensationalize mental illness, there are also pages dedicated to de-stigmatizing mental illness. People who can’t afford therapy can receive some form of help by looking to social media and finding informative pieces that encourage conversation about mental health.