Increased Awareness about Mental Health Issues Comes With It’s Own Hazards
By Ashley Wright
Mental health is just as important as physical health, as many people have recently begun to realize. In addition to this newfound understanding, many people are beginning to realize just how prevalent mental illness is in the population. Despite this, the issue of stigmatization is a big one that still surrounds mental health and mental illness issues.
A stigma is the negative social perception around a topic and is widespread in mental illness discussions. According to the Surgeon General in 1999, a stigma is “perhaps the biggest barrier to mental health care” and can result in fewer people seeking treatment or help for any mental illnesses they may face. In fact, even though an estimated 450 million people suffer from some form of mental illness or another, 60% of those people do not receive treatment and 90% of people in developing countries do not receive any form of care either.
In an attempt to combat these serious repercussions, there has been a recent push to de-stigmatize a lot of mental illnesses or mental health related concerns. While the intention behind this movement is mostly good, it has a tendency to backfire when not executed correctly. This has led to an entirely new issue in the mental health world—romanticization.
Romanticization of mental illness is when a source, typically the media, glorifies the existence of mental illness and portrays it in an unrealistic and idealized manner. This makes the illness seem like something desirable, or at the very least appealing. This is a huge issue in its own right as it incentivizes people to jeopardize their own mental health and not seek much needed treatment.
The media is largely responsible for the romanticization of several mental illnesses, and this trend has seemed to have gotten worse in recent years. Characters with mental issues have gone from being portrayed as violent or dangerous to tragic and misunderstood, neither of which is ideal for promoting treatment or encouraging suffers to seek care. TV shows and movies such as 13 Reasons Why or the Joker (to name two of dozens of examples) were instant cultural hits, but their portrayals of these illnesses may have done more harm than good. Other shows, such as the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, show just how aware they are of these prevalent issues. However, that show is just one example and is written in a satirical manner and may be misunderstood as a joke or worse, as romanticization itself.
It is important to be aware of the thin line between romanticization and de-stigmatization. It has been reported that teens exposed to media that portrays mental illness in an over-glorified way are less likely to seek help when self-harming because they see it as “something tragically beautiful.” These individuals are also more likely to believe that their mental illness is “a part of [them]” and as a result they may feel as though therapy cannot help them. These are both incredibly harmful mindsets and in some cases can be even more dangerous than the original stigmas themselves.
It has also been shown that some aspects of mental illness are more easily transferred than others. For example, teen suicide rates go up exponentially after the first incident. Essentially this means that when one individual commits suicide, classmates are more likely to follow suit. The same is true for teens exposed to similar stimuli through the media. After 13 Reasons Why season 1 premiered, searches related to suicide increased notably. While this may seem harmless at first, research has shown that there is a high correlation between such searches and actual suicide attempts.
Mental illness is a sensitive topic and opens the door to a field of research that many people know nothing about. It is not surprising that people turn to pop culture to fill in the gaps. It is problematic, however, when the writers and producers behind the media either don’t know what they are doing or do not care enough to get the facts straight. The best way to combat this is to bring awareness to mental health, but to highlight both the good and the bad that comes along with it. Having characters that struggle with depression is great, but they cannot always be the downer or always be the tragically misunderstood hero. The key is balance. While this may require more work on the part of media companies and require audiences to be more critical regarding what they are consuming, the end results will be worth it.