Do we romanticize mental illness?

Posted: May 30, 2023

How the media we watch glorifies teen mental illness

Imagine you’re innocently scrolling on TikTok or some other social media platform to relax after a long day, and your for-you page is feeding you uncalled for posts blatantly promoting mental illnesses. Or, imagine you start to watch a TV show or movie that misrepresents the reality of mental disorders and portrays it as some kind of “aesthetic.”

Mental illness historically has a history of harmful, stigmatic stereotypes. People with mental illness have been shunned, misunderstood and shamed for their uncontrollable brain. But what happens when the situation reverses? What happens when mental illness is portrayed a desirable thing, and people twist the horrible reality of mental illness into an aesthetic?

Mental illness is represented in the news media via magazine articles and books and in entertainment media via books, TV shows, movies, music and social media. The way the variety of creators decide to portray these mental issues can deeply affect the viewers, especially teens.

Teenagers who have grown up in a world that is dependent on technology and media are more susceptible to forming their thoughts and opinions around what they see online or on other forms of media.

In modern entertainment media, there is a growing trend of romanticizing mental disorders and treating these conditions as a glamorous experience. This is very harmful because it encourages people to behave in damaging ways and showcases mental illness in falsely romanticized ways.

It’s also harmful for people who genuinely suffer, because their disorder is being falsely represented in an invalidating way which undermines their true struggles.

A classic example is the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Based on a 2007 book by Jay Asher, it ran for four seasons from 2017 to 2020. The show had a lot of controversy surrounding it because the disturbing plotlines were harmful to the mental health of viewers and the main character graphically dies by suicide on screen.

Following the show’s debut, stories of people taking their own lives in the same manner the character, Hannah, had, began surfacing. Researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital had found in a study that there was a 28.9% increase in suicide rates in April 2017 in 10-to-17-year-olds after the show premiered.

This rise occurred because 13 Reasons Why had portrayed suicide and depression as a means for receiving attention, when in reality, most people who attempt or do die by suicide aren’t actually trying to solely get noticed.

Many TV shows and movies showcase mental illness as something desirable and attractive. Other examples include The Virgin Suicides, Fight Club, Euphoria and Black Swan. In some cases, it’s not the show itself that’s romanticized, it’s a specific character that is shown and people strive to be similar to them. From a social media standpoint, the most glorified mentally ill characters are Charlie Kelmeckis (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), The Joker, and Alaska Young (Looking for Alaska).

Many TV shows and movies showcase mental illness as something desirable and attractive. The romanticism of mental struggles hurts people who genuinely suffer because it hinders them from reaching out and seeking help because they think that their illness makes them “special.”

Modern entertainment media has excessively romanticized mentally ill people, potentially influencing a whole generation of young teens to wallow in self-imposed agony rather than get help and find healing because they think stability will make them mundane and uninteresting.

Contrary to this portrayal, mental illnesses are terrible conditions that no one should wish for, and young people should be careful not to imitate or glorify TV and movie characters depicted in unhealthy ways.

“After I watched the movie Thirteen, I was thinking about how terrible the main character’s story was, but when I went on TikTok, I saw people wanting to be like her and making her struggles an aesthetic,” said senior Avary Lessard. “Young girls are impressionable to these bad habits shown and think being like these mentally ill characters will make them, like, unique.”

The romanticization of mental disorders can’t only be blamed on the movie or TV show’s writers or directors. The way people perceive and talk about the media they consume can either help or harm them. One person could watch a show and realize what they’re watching isn’t intended to be glorified, and another person could misunderstand the purpose in which it was made and create an idealized version of the illness shown.

Junior Owen Stanley emphasized the importance of preventing the glorification of these serious illnesses.

“It’s not really something one person can solve, but I think that everyone should start being more mindful about what they post and try to ignore posts that are harmful or triggering,” he said. “And with movies and shows, people need to try and see where mental illnesses are being represented wrongly and not believe what they see.”

The problems that arise due to the romanticization of mental illness are significant and harmful, and it’s crucial for those who understand what’s at stake to stop the spreading of trends which make these disorders seem alluring. Nothing positive comes from making mental health struggles seem like something desirable and it’s time to stop viewing these issues through a rose-colored lens.

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