Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Every year, one in five adults living in the United States battles mental illness. Mental illnesses can affect a person’s mood, thoughts, and behavior and are linked to anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide. Unfortunately, the media’s tendency to misrepresent illnesses as “trendy,” “quirky,” or even “cute” has encouraged viewers to believe that mental illnesses shouldn’t be taken seriously.
According to a study published by the Journal of Health and Communication in 2018, characters suffering from a mental illness are too often portrayed as violent and dangerous in television shows and movies. The study reported that mass media fails to define mental illnesses correctly and lacks the proper research needed to portray mental illnesses in various media forms, including multimedia. “The ill are presented not only as peculiar and different but also as dangerous,” according to the study’s author, Dr. Anat Klin.
When mental illnesses are misrepresented in the media it can be extremely harmful to viewers. As per Karen Dill-Shackelford, an expert on how the media influences people’s everyday lives, “[the media] can actually perpetuate stigma about mental illness, which often keeps people from seeking help for fear that they’ll be judged and shunned.”
In 2017, Netflix released a series called 13 Reasons Why, which displays the aftermath of a high school student’s suicide. The show covers various sensitive social issues that are especially prevalent among today’s youth, including suicide, sexual assault, bullying, racism, mental health, drug addiction, homophobia, abortion, and school shootings. However, experts agree that mental health and illnesses are poorly represented throughout the show. Notably, the show’s first season barely mentions mental illness even though 46% of suicide victims struggle with mental illnesses.
Furthermore, the release of 13 Reasons Why increased the number of searches related to suicide; this is especially concerning because research has shown that such search trends correlate with increased suicide rates.
Additionally, sensationalizing mental illness can be harmful, especially for young teenagers. Images of self-harm that circle the internet may also influence individuals to view mental illness as something that is “tragically beautiful.” In 2017, the Athens Journal of Mass Media and Communication published a study investigating attention-seeking behaviors through social media posts. Francine Edwards, the lead researcher in the investigation, noticed how being depressed, having anxiety, and even attempting self-harm could be seen as unique or cool. “People have this need to be different than everyone else, and they think that having a mental illness like depression, OCD or anxiety will make them different,” according to Edwards.
American Horror Story is another example of how the media glorifies mental illnesses. The television series’ main character Tate Langdon is supposedly portrayed as a sociopath. However, the show depicts his condition as “poetic” and “tragically beautiful” for aesthetic purposes. It even goes as far as to have Langdon take part in a school shooting in skull makeup and slicked-back hair.
The depiction of mental illnesses on the show glorifies them as enchanting and even goes as far as to convince “viewers, especially young ones, that there’s some kind of misunderstood beauty in being toxic and damaged.” The show became so popular that young teenagers became obsessed with Langon on social media, years after the season had ended.
The misrepresentation of mental illnesses by the media often leads to people incorrectly self-diagnosing themselves with severe mental health problems in order to be “unique.” This takes away the spotlight from the thousands of people who legitimately struggle with a mental illness. Rather than self-diagnosing, Edwards urges people who think they may have a mental illness to reach out to professionals for a proper diagnosis. “Self-diagnosing can often lead to a misdiagnosis or not noticing other symptoms that a medical professional would,” according to Edwards.