How should we write about mental illness?

Katerina Vasilaki discusses the best and the worst ways mental illness has been depicted in culture, and the effects representation can have

Katerina Vasilaki
14th November 2020
This article contains discussion of mental health disorders, suicide and self-harm.
As progressive as our society may seem, mental health seems to remain a taboo and most of the time is truly misrepresented or even glamorised by the entertainment industry.

People diagnosed with mental illness need to be accurately and actively included in literature, movies, TV shows, music, and so on. However, we need to make sure this happens in a way that reassures the people who are struggling that even at the lowest points, they belong and they are loved.

An article on mind.org.uk addressed the issue of not only certain disorders being ‘ignored’ in comparison to others, but of how those which do get represented keep feeding the same stereotypes and also reproduce a very toxic narrative, ‘that romance can fix it all’. Although being in a loving and stable relationship can offer support to the person who is struggling, a licensed therapist can truly and properly guide their minds out of those dark moments.

Additionally, mental institutions are mostly being portrayed in a scary, and prison-like way. It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) dismantles that prejudice and illustrates a different perspective of the facilities and the patients. Instead of being written the usual way (threatening, dangerous), they are on their journey of coping and going back to a healthy life, just like Craig.

Moreover, an example surely which is more familiar is the 13 Reasons Why (2017) Netflix Original show. There has definitely been quite the backlash concerning the series, and personally, while I enjoyed some aspects of it, I found others problematic. Particularly, the show very graphically portrayed the scene where Hannah takes her own life. Some say it was to shake the audiences off, but personally, having read the books, I would rather Asher's depiction. In the books, Clay mentions in the Cassette 1: Side A chapter that Hannah "swallowed a handful of pills" Later, in Cassette 6: Side B, it's explained that no one really knows what happened. Rumors said that Hannah passed out in bathtub water and drowned. Others claimed to hear that her parents found the tub overflowing, but that Hannah was found on her bed.

The point is not to glorify her death, to not focus on the way she took her own life, but rather what implications that had for the people around her.

Some better depictions I can think about in the movie world are The Silver Linings Playbook (2012), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (both the movie and book with the amazing quote: ‘we accept the love we think we deserve’) (2012) and It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010). In literature, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963), Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (2013), We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson (one of my favourite books of all time) (2016) and lastly, Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (2016). Please do check the trigger warnings before diving into any movie or book!

It is totally understandable that not everyone’s experience of mental health issues is going to be the same, however, fitting people with social anxiety or depression in certain stereotypes is turning into a trend (with logos such as ‘my anxiety has anxiety’ etc.). There are sides to every mental disorder that are not explored but at least those who do get air time or ‘page time’ should simultaneously caress the audience’s heart, raise awareness and destigmatize those topics.

You can find Mind’s article where the Senior Media Advisor discusses the movie Carol and some possibly damaging beliefs for the viewer's way of understanding mental illness here!

Featured image: '13 Reasons Why' via IMDb

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