Lately, mental health - and mental health conditions - seem to be cropping up quite a bit in the media. From TV (13 Reasons Why) to movies (Split, To the Bone), portrayals of people with varying states of mental health and mental health diagnoses are out there for all the world to see. But are these portrayals done in a positive way? In other words, do they help to raise awareness and reduce stigma, or to potentially create fear and increase stigma? Here, I’d like to discuss the aforementioned show and movies. This post is not intended to be a commentary on whether portrayals of mental health in the media are inherently good or bad, but rather just a discussion of how various movies and shows have handled it.
13 Reasons Why, the recent (and very popular) Netflix series, is a prime example of a character struggling with very hidden inner turmoil. In this show, Hannah Baker, a high school student, commits suicide after being bullied at school, and then being raped by a classmate. Before she died, she recorded tapes leaving messages for all those she felt had wronged her. It should be noted that in the show Hannah did not actually have a mental health diagnosis that we know of, depression or otherwise. However, the show chronicles her intense internal pain and eventual suicide, and thus she still seems like a fitting example to discuss.
While the show has many fans, it also has many critics, including mental health professionals. Fans lauded the show’s open discussion of suicide and mental health, and felt that it raised awareness for the hidden struggles the people around us might be going through. Many critics, however. said that the show was somewhat dangerous in that it may have made suicide look like a good option. No one was listening to Hannah, until she committed suicide. She was in pain, and killing herself made that pain go away. The bullies Hannah was facing at school weren’t seeing any consequences to their actions, until Hannah exposed them through her tapes. In these ways, could the show have made suicide look desirable, even glamorous? Were the negative consequences of taking one’s own life emphasized enough? This show definitely started conversations, but whether or not it was a positive presence is very much the subject of debate.
This brings us to Split, a recent, fictional movie about a man with multiple personalities. In the movie, the main character, Kevin, has a number of competing personalities, a few of which conspire to kidnap three girls and keep them locked up. Some of Kevin’s personalities are on board with the plan; others, including his main self, are not. While the movie might bring some understanding of what it can be like to live with multiple personalities, it certainly doesn’t put this diagnosis in a good light. On the positive side, we see that Kevin does not have a whole lot of control over which of his personalities is in charge and what they choose to do, which shows us that he seems to be a good person and doesn’t, at his core, want to be doing the bad things he is doing. On the negative side, for that very reason, this movie creates a very unfortunate depiction of a person with multiple personalities. It shows a person who is not in control of their actions, who cannot be trusted, who is deceitful, and who is very dangerous. For those whose only exposure to people with multiple personalities is the portrayal in this film, a very negative opinion could develop. On a more productive note, the Netflix movie To the Bone demonstrates that movies about mental health can be made in a way that serves to promote understanding and perhaps empathy. This movie features a young girl, Ellen, who has struggled with anorexia for quite some time. We see her trying out a sort of last hope, alternative kind of rehab program, and we get to witness her challenges in a very emotional and, hopefully, relatable way. The ways Ellen and her peers discuss and attempt to face their problems give us a fairly eye-opening view of what it is like to be - at least mentally - unable to eat or to keep your food down. What separates this movie from 13 Reasons Why and Split is that it not only attempts to show us how it might feel to be suffering in ways other people don’t really understand, it also tries to show us how a mental health diagnosis can actually be something we can all relate to. And most importantly, rather than sending a message of hopelessness, it paints a picture of hope.