Mental health is a challenge. Not just to live with but also to portray. There is a long list of diagnoses and an even longer list of symptoms. But there are no two same lived experiences. Proper representation of mental health is how we will move the cause for better understanding, better services and better understanding.
Representation has helped other amazing causes for race, gender, sex and sexuality by breaking down the stereotypes and tropes surrounding those issues. You don’t see the stereotype of the camp gay gossip as much anymore. Now you see nuanced characters with in-depth stories that represent the lived experiences of so many queer folks. It isn’t perfect, but it is better. And that improvement and the bravery it took to tell proper queer stories helped me come to terms with my sexuality.
We need the same for mental health. The problem I see in media is a struggle to balance not getting it badly wrong and finding a way of telling stories that resonate with people.
Bad Portrayal of Mental Health
Portraying mental health wrongly is rather easy. It relies on old clichés of the mentally ill being dangerous and violent. On choosing the most extreme sensationalism and describing it as a mental health story. 2019’s film, Joker, is a prime example. DC Comics decided to create a film that focused on the murderous supervillain and Clown Prince of Gotham, the Joker. By taking that decision, they chose to take on the responsibility to make that character empathetic. There are various ways they could have done that, but they decided to go down the mental health route. The film has moments that resonate with me. There is a line spoken by Arthur Fleck (this Joker of the film) which is ‘The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.’ I suspect many who struggle with mental health conditions would recognise that.
However, the film also embraces the stereotype that people with mental health conditions are predisposed to violence. Arthur Fleck takes seven prescribed medication, carries around cards that explain that his laughter is a condition and is assigned an uncaring therapist who doesn’t listen to him before funding is cut. To add to that, the filmmakers also include the age-old trope of a psychopath with mother issues.
The issue with the Joker is that whilst the film shows the harm society can inflict upon those it neglects, especially those with mental health conditions that doesn’t mean people with such conditions will become murderous leaders of a mob. We who have mental health issues battle with a stigma that implies we are more prone to violence, extreme irrationality and are dangerous. Joker strengthens that stigma. In the film, Arthur Fleck in full Joker make up even shouts ‘What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you f**kin’ deserve!’ For me, that line alone is damaging to the cause of breaking the stigma around mental health.
I don’t want to see more stories about dangerous, madmen who murder or beat or rape people and have it portrayed as a mental health issue. I’ve seen it so many times, and the Joker is just the most recent example of it.
Representation is not simple
Another show that in recent years has garnered plenty of controversies is Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. As the title suggests, the first season is about the 13 reasons the character Hannah Baker committed suicide. As a form of a suicide note, Hannah left behind tapes, and on each side of the tape, she detailed the reasons, events and traumas that she believed led to her killing herself.
Despite that criticism and the accusation that the show harms young people’s mental health, I chose to watch it and experienced a show very different from the criticism I was reading. In the UK, the age rating for the show is 18 years old. Therefore it is clear it will tackle topics of a mature nature like sexual assault, drugs and suicide. Yet I have seen parents criticise the show because they’re thirteen or fourteen years old watched it and suffered issues as a result. But I question whether that is the show’s fault considering its age rating.
However, there are legitimate issues with the first season I want to tackle. The show deals with mental health issues and yet in the first season, struggles to use the language to identify them. Hannah Baker, after all the bullying and trauma she suffered most certainly suffered from a mental health condition such as depression. Yet, the first season does not for me effectively delve into that enough. I saw scenes that resonated with my own experiences, but the writers of the show never fleshed them out. I do believe they improve on that area of the show in later seasons.
A major issue I had with the first season, which is why I warned some of my more fragile and sensitive friends not to watch it was its lack of hope. The first season, like the film, Joker, completely lacks a sense of hope. And for me, if you are going to create content surrounding mental health, especially anxiety, depression and suicide survivor’s guilt, you need to offer the characters and the audience hope. We live with conditions that rob us of hope, and storytelling is a great way to remind us that life is full of hope. The show finishes its four-season run with a speech by Clay Jensen, the main character throughout the show which resonated with me so profoundly; I was close to tears.
Suicide is complex
I cannot talk about 13 Reasons Why without confronting how suicide is handled in the show and by critics of the show. The show has been criticised because it featured a scene that shows Hannah committing suicide. The scene has since been removed from the show. However, in this post, I am not going to talk about that particular criticism because it is well documented elsewhere, and there are more informed opinions on the topic.
However, some critics have labelled the show unrealistic due to the elaborate nature of Hannah’s suicide “note” that assigned blame to those involved in her bullying, sexual harassment and rape for her death because no other person can contribute to the suicide of another. The tapes are an obvious dramatic tool used by the author and the show to structure the story. However, the claim that other people cannot cause another person to kill themselves is a hard one to ignore. Representation is hard because our lived experiences are not general but individual. They are subjective, and therefore one person’s experience will be entirely different for another’s. Those who claim that another person cannot be responsible for the suicide of another may not have heard the stories of Tyler Clementi and the other eight LGBT individuals who killed themselves in September 2010 due to being bullied about their sexuality.
The reasons for suicide are complex and often result from deep anxiety and depression. The cause of such things can be the fault of others through bullying, oppression, discrimination and trauma. My suicidal intentions were caused by a conflict between my sexuality and the dogmatic teachings of the Catholic Church. Priests, bishops, Popes and others contributed in some part towards my suicidal intentions because of their homophobic teachings.
13 Reasons Why does not get everything right. For one thing, it should undoubtedly have had trigger warnings on its episodes. After season one, Netflix took their responsibilities more seriously on that front and by creating another show, 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons that discusses many of the issues the show tackles. But I have found some representation for what I experienced both in school, college and university and since with my mental health in that show. I could easily have made that speech by Clay above because I suffer from anxiety and depression, but mostly anxiety and life are spectacular.
Human Anxiety in a Supernatural World
One show that helped me understand my anxiety better was Teen Wolf. One of the main characters, Stiles Stilinski, suffers from anxiety and experiences panic attacks throughout the show. Whilst the show is about teenagers facing supernatural challenges such as werewolves, banshees and ghost riders, the characters also have to face incredibly human challenges like growing up, finding their identities, finding a chosen family and in Stile’s case, dealing with mental health.
Stiles is portrayed as having anxiety without it affecting his ability to help his friends or live his life. His friends don’t shun or judge him for it. They don’t expect him not to have it or to man up over it either. There is a scene near the end of season 2 where Stiles describes what having anxiety and panic attacks feels like. The scene hit me hard when I first watched it because it sounded so familiar. It also gave me my favourite Churchill quote that I live by, ‘If you are going through hell, keep going.’
Representation is essential, but it had to be wide-ranging, nuanced and rooted in the truth of the creators. There are representations of mental health and queer issues that do not mirror my experiences at all, but they may match another person’s perfectly and vice versa. To have conversations that go beyond breaking the stigma, we need a rich tapestry of stories shared throughout the world to garner greater understanding about the struggles and lives of those living with mental health issues.