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What TV Gets Wrong About Mental Illness

Depictions of Mental Health in Pop Culture

There’s a reason talking about mental health in any setting can be intimidating: it’s about the wounds you can’t see, and the complex neurological wiring you can’t quite understand. So, when depictions of mental illness are finally shown center stage in pop culture, it can be a relief to those who suffer silently knowing they are not alone in their feelings.

But the truth is, not all depictions of mental health in the media are healthy. In fact, many TV shows and films have an alarmingly poor grasp on what it really means to have a mental illness and perpetuate harmful stereotypes that feed the stigmas attached to it. However, by understanding these shortcomings and arming yourself with the right tools to have constructive conversations with loved ones about mental health, you can support a more accurate understanding of mental illness in your household.

The Glorification and Romanticism of Suicide in Pop Culture

When you’re a teenager, everything seems like the end of the world. To those with depression and thoughts of suicide, that concept doesn’t seem so far off. In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death for those ages 10-24.

While talking about suicide and depression on television and in the media is not always harmful, inaccurate portrayals of suicide and its aftermath can be incredibly misleading for young people. Research shows that exposure to another person's suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be a risk factor for youth struggling with mental illness.

Agnes K. Costello, MD, a psychiatrist with Northwestern Medicine, says that programs like Netflix’s recent hit 13 Reasons Why that glamorize depression and suicide can be extremely harmful. “While [these types of shows] make for addictive TV, and it does start a discussion about teen suicide, my concern is that this type of show validates, the faulty, fatalistic thinking that mental health professionals try to move teens away from,” she explains.

Taking the Stigma Out of Mental Health

Television has the power to act as a portal into the lives of characters that in reality, we may not take the time to get to know. Studies indicate that mass media is one of the public’s primary sources of information about certain disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression.

Based on the characters presented in pop culture, it would be easy to believe lots of disparaging myths about people with mental illnesses and how they interact with others, such as the following:

They’re prone to violence: In actuality, mental illness alone doesn’t predict violent behavior. Other variables such as age, sex, and level of stress also contribute to outbreaks of aggression.

They don’t seek help: Psychiatrists, therapists, and other mental health professionals are often depicted as cold and unsuccessful in these narratives, propagating the myth that those with mental illness have nowhere to turn. The truth is, with dedicated time and support from a trusted professional, individuals may find the care they need to better manage their mental health . By not showing characters who successfully manage mental health symptoms, we further perpetuate this image of victimhood that perpetuates “giving up” and fatalistic thinking.

They’re overly dramatic: In favor of gut-wrenching drama, too often shows focus on the “dramatic unhappiness of the protagonist”, but “fail to discuss exactly what his/her condition is [and therein] miss the opportunity to show effective treatment,” observes Dr. Costello. In real life, most people with mental illness live relatively drama-free.

When damaging stereotypes from television are interpreted as reality, they often create unbalanced and dangerous solutions for (particularly youth) managing mental health challenges. While these “revenge fantasy” storylines might make for great television, it’s time to change the narrative and promote positive understanding about successfully managing mental illness.

Preparing for the Future

Though depicting mental health in films is a tricky endeavor, some films and TV shows do a much better job than others in discussing illness and suicide without excessive violence or glorifying destructive actions without consequence. To navigate the murky waters of whether a program or film is appropriate or potentially harmful for children, Dr. Costello recommends showing a healthy concern over the viewing material and if possible, co-watching questionable programs with your child and discussing the subject matter openly thereafter.

Knowing your child or teen’s emotional developmental level is also especially important for determining appropriate subject matter. Teens with more delayed social processing, or inversely, teens who are overly attuned to pain may struggle with the strong emotions that come with more mature themes or graphic scenes. Be sure to maintain open levels of honest communication with your child, free of judgment or criticism. 

Dr. Costello encourages:

  • Listening closely to your child’s response to sensitive mental health subjects
  • Avoiding offering immediate advice
  • Asking clarifying questions, and leaving time for reflection
  • Consulting a professional when needed

It’s impossible to be there every time your child experiences violence on television or witnesses stigmatization in mental health, but with the right knowledge, you can equip your child with the empathy and willingness to learn that it takes to navigate through the clutter.