Mental illness is hard to understand. By this, I mean that it’s difficult to understand what it’s like to live with it unless you have experienced it yourself. However, growing up, I knew that mental illness was something awful. After learning about it in school for years, writing research papers on depression and reading countless articles, I knew that it was something I did not want to experience. Thanks to public education, I was taught that mental illness was real and frightening, and that it was affecting a huge percentage of our population. And yet, at a recent point in my life, I found myself asking, “When did having a mental illness become cool?”
My first encounter with the romanticized idea of mental illness came from the Internet. I must have been around twelve or thirteen years old; a time when I became more affiliated with social media. It was during this time that I remember the online popularity with mental illness, and the romanticized depiction of it. Suddenly, it was “cool” to have anxiety or depression. Photos of self-harm surfaced my Tumblr dashboard frequently. Black-and-white pictures of girls, accompanied with tragic monologues about low self-esteem, were quite popular. Many people would “like” them. Images of sad-eyed teens confessing their struggles with body image. More “likes”. Suddenly, mental illness was seen as beautiful.
I remember turning to the mass-media, and seeing evidence of romanticized mental illness there as well. Many are drawn to the tragic stories of those who suffer from mental illness, who are accompanied by their loving, understanding, and supportive partners. We want their “perfect” relationship; thus, viewers start to glorify mental illness and the sympathetic response that is drawn from these characters. Actors depicting obsessive-compulsive disorder, such as Jim Parsons playing Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, are seen as “cute” and “hilarious”. These conditions are portrayed as less of a serious illness, and more of an interesting personality quirk. It’s easy to idolise the protagonists on TV, and when these lovable characters have mental disorders, certain audiences can misinterpret the condition and fetishize it. It’s seen as romantic or glamorized, not real.
And just like that, my inherently negative view towards mental illness had changed. As an impressionable youth, after being exposed to this fetishized version of mental illness, I wasn’t sure what to think anymore. Twelve year old me started to wonder if it was something that made you special. Something that made you different, with an interesting story to tell. It made you seem more grown-up. This, of course, was an extremely dangerous thought to have. The power of representation in the media is astounding, and I was far from being the only person to have been affected by these false portrayals. I have read reports on teenagers who were falsely diagnosed with mental illnesses, due to social media sites that have influenced them to create a fictitious disorder in their heads. To give you some perspective, here’s a 2013 statistic from Mirror Magazine: “An alarming 34% admitted lying about having a mental illness in the past, according to online therapy service mentaline.com.” When a significant percentage of our population is faking a mental illness, there’s obviously a serious problem with how these disorders are being portrayed.
I’m not against depicting mental illness in the media. In fact, the media is a powerful platform to educate viewers and spread awareness. There are several examples of works in the media that I think are able to accurately portray mental illness, and do so with heart and integrity. Movies like Silver Linings Playbook and A Beautiful Mind are terrific in this aspect. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great book that illustrates mental illness as it is: dark, unrelenting disorders that deeply affect people’s psyche. However, content producers need to understand that mental illnesses are not beautiful. These disorders create real struggles that real people deal with every single day, and when it is romanticized, there lies a danger in which the seriousness of the issue becomes written off.
To conclude, I would like to say this to content producers:
If you’re portraying mental illness, show your audience the real side of it. Remind them of the everyday struggles. Remember the twelve year old kid who’s reading and watching your content, and the youths wishing they had a mental disorder to be like one of your characters. Show them the truths about mental illness, and do not glamorize it.