by Hannah Dobrogosz
As conversations surrounding mental health have increased in society, so has the portrayal of mental illness across television. Although increased exposure to scenarios of mental illness ought to spur increased acceptance and promote a sense of normalcy, the media often takes a romantic rather than realistic approach when dealing with mental health. Television shows tokenize mental health and use it to fill plot holes, tell jokes, or set up a dramatic revenge plot. Whether it’s as fleeting as DJ Tanner’s episode-long battle with anorexia on Full House or as drawn-out as Hannah Baker’s glamorized revenge-suicide plot in 13 Reasons Why, many television shows paint harmful and false images of mental illness.
Mental illness is not glamorous. It is not trendy. It is not a punchline nor a dramatic conflict. It is a very real part of someone’s life. With mental illness being an increasingly hot topic, I have often wondered why it still feels so stigmatized. The proof is in the production. Mental illness may receive more attention, but not all press is good press. Media has sought to reclaim mental health and turn it into a spectacle for programming, rather than show the true, raw nature of living with mental illness. That is not to say all television shows are completely inaccurate and dangerous, but continuing to produce romanticized versions of mental illness prolongs the stigmatization of mental health in society.
13 Reasons Why is notorious for its harmful portrayal of mental illness and suicide. It tokenizes Hannah Baker’s illness and turns it into a spectacle. Rather than addressing the tragedy of suicide in a more conscious, realistic way, it turns Hannah’s suicide into a revenge-plot and outlines the methodical ways in which she planned for her suicide to punish others. In reality, suicide is rarely mapped out precisely and there is often not much of an explanation left behind. What harmful messages can such a show be sending? First, it paints the victim as a villain. Suicide is not some revenge tactic. 13 Reasons Why gives adolescents the idea that they too can use extreme measures to punish those that have hurt them, rather than encouraging this vulnerable age group to seek positive mental health resources. Hannah is painted as a hero and a villain, and a bit of a martyr. How can such a convoluted portrayal of illness and suicide even begin to destigmatize mental health in society? Although shows like 13 Reasons Why introduce more conversations surrounding mental illness, they prolong many harmful stigmas by ignoring the dire reality of mental illness and taking on an inaccurate, romantic approach.
Though many popular shows default to dramatic, romantic, and inaccurate explorations of mental health, not all portrayals are toxic. The television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend provides a much more nuanced and accurate portrayal of navigating mental illness. The show’s protagonist, Rebecca Bunch, faces many highs and lows in her life. She makes erratic and spontaneous choices, she forms intense obsessions, she experiences a wide arrange of emotions, and she is no stranger to darkness. The show depicts Rebecca’s journey as she pursues love, friendship, and a new sense of self. In chasing these things, Rebecca is forced to face the greatest obstacle keeping her from happiness: herself. After receiving incorrect diagnoses, burning many bridges, and losing her grip on reality, Rebecca attempts suicide. While this subject matter is triggering and difficult to view, the show handles it very tastefully and shows the very real pain and rawness of such a moment. There are no bells and whistles. She doesn’t try to get attention or hurt anyone else. She simply makes a choice that she believes, at that moment, will make the pain stop. It is heart-breaking but honest.
Rebecca survives her suicide attempt and pledges to take therapy more seriously and pursue treatment. She receives a new diagnosis, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and begins navigating her new life with a clearer understanding of how she operates. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does not try to capitalize on the suffering of characters. It does not romanticize or sugar-coat the realities of living with mental illness. Instead, it seeks to normalize talking about mental health, therapy, medication, and other forms of coping or treatment. It synthesizes these elements into daily life and proves that many people are fighting their own battles. It is a musical television show, so many of its messages are portrayed in musical numbers, such as “Anti-Depressants Are So Not a Big Deal.” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend shows audiences the rough, tough, funny, and confusing aspects of embarking on a personal mental health journey. Though the show blends comedy and drama, it does not turn mental illness into a spectacle. Instead, mental illness is a facet of the protagonist that she learns to live with as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery.
Television shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are far more honest in their portrayals of mental illness, yet these shows do not receive the same hype and press as shows such as 13 Reasons Why. It’s as if 13 Reasons Why profits off of its toxicity. No wonder society still struggles to accept and normalize mental illness. My love of television and film will not over-shadow my advocacy for mental health. Be picky about the shows you watch, fall in love with, and share with others. What shows are sending the right messages? What shows want to normalize mental health, not capitalize off of it? If harmful portrayals of mental health continue to dominate the conversation, will society ever understand the truth about mental illness and will they ever accept it?