The Portrayal of Mental Illness in the Media

Our generation is known for being incredibly politically involved and fighting for change in our communities, society, and government, and we are seeing it now more than ever. Unfortunately, in the past ten years, anxiety and depression rates have more than doubled, which has also become normalized within Generation Z. When portraying mental illness in TV shows, it is important that the approach does not romanticize and glamorize it. This is because it could give an inaccurate representation of mental illness and suicide, negatively influencing young and impressionable viewers. This influence can be seen in the shows Euphoria and 13 Reasons Why. 

In the HBO show Euphoria, we are introduced to  Rue Bennett, a recovering drug addict who has no intention of staying clean. The show starts with Rue being discharged from a rehabilitation facility, but within the first few days back home she relapses and seeks out her former supplier at a party. In the first episode, we get more back story on her, learning that she was diagnosed with OCD, ADD, generalized anxiety disorder, and possibly bipolar disorder early in her childhood. Throughout the show, we are given glimpses into the conflicts that Rue battles with being a drug addict, and the struggles with her mental health as well. 

From @jacobelordi on Instagram

“The other thing about depression is it kind of collapses time. Suddenly, you find your whole days blending together to create one endless and suffocating loop. So you find yourself trying to remember the things that made you happy. But slowly, your brain begins to erase every memory that ever brought you joy. And eventually, all you can think about is how life has always been this way. And will only continue to be this way. I had a therapist once who said that these states will wax and wane. Which gave my mother relief, because it meant that in the bad times, there would be good times. But it also gave her anxiety because it meant that in the good times, there would be bad times. It always confused me, because I didn’t really know what it meant. But it did sound a lot calmer than the way I would describe it. Granted, I didn’t realize until later what waxing and waning implied. That these feelings were fixed and constant and would never end for the rest of my life.” – Rue Bennet, Euphoria.

It is easier to relate to Rue because of the way Euphoria approaches the topic of mental illness. As a result, people who have not experienced mental illness can begin to understand the importance of supporting friends or loved ones who may be going through a similar situation.. It also gives people who deal with depression, anxiety, or OCD representation, without idealizing the use of drugs and alcohol, giving a realistic look on the effects of drug addiction and mental illness. The show attempts to not romanticize any of the characters’ mental illnesses or struggles, which is crucial when a show is depicting what teenagers and adolescents go through. Euphoria not only shows what adolescents go through growing up in our generation, but makeup trends, outfits, and the other characters’ stories deeply resonate with its audience.

13 Reasons Why is a TV series produced by Netflix about Hannah Baker who died by suicide leaving a box of cassette tapes behind detailing the reasons behind her decision. It was a young adult novel geared towards twelve to eighteen year olds, which was then produced into a TV series. These tapes depict many heavy topics including sexual assault, bullying, drug addiction, mental health, and suicide. Thirteen Reasons Why deals with many sensitive issues and an inaccurate portrayal could leave a harmful impression on young viewers. 

When reporting on suicide in the media, and especially in TV shows, there are certain guidelines to follow to prevent suicidal contagion (emulation of someone’s suicide). By reporting on it responsibly, it reduces this risk. These are the things to avoid when reporting on suicide, designed by mental health professionals (https://reportingonsuicide.org/):

  • Describing or depicting the method or location of the suicide
  • Sharing the content of the suicide note
  • Describing the personal details about the person who died
  • Presenting suicide as a common or acceptable response to hardship
  • Oversimplifying or speculating on the reason for the suicide
  • Sensationalizing details in the headline or story
  • Glamorizing or romanticizing suicide

The show Thirteen Reasons Why essentially breaks each and every one of these guidelines. The entire premise revolves around Hannah Baker’s suicide, which inherently sensationalizes and describes the method of suicide. Throughout the series, we focus on the content of the suicide note, the personal details of Hannah Baker, and an entire oversimplification of the reasoning behind the suicide, given to us by the thirteen cassette tapes left behind. The tapes are the main focus of the show, which is sharing the sensitive content of the suicide note. These tapes also tend to place blame on other people and outside influences, which presents suicide as an acceptable response to hardship. It also glamorizes suicide, giving the message that by dying by suicide, the victim will get revenge on the people who wronged them. This show gives no prevention whatsoever, which is dangerous for people who cannot recognize the signs of a loved one who may be going through something similar to the protagonist’s story. As shown above, 13 Reasons Why breaks every one of these recommendations, which can give the viewers a backwards and inaccurate perception of suicide and mental illness.

There have been many cases of teens replicating Hannah Baker’s suicide, which resulted in Netflix cutting out the suicide scene, but it was already too late for many families. Initially, there was also no warning given before showing the suicide scene. Emily Bragg, a nineteen year-old girl from Maryland, took her own life after watching 13 Reasons Why. She emulated the same method and suicide note, just like the show. She had already been struggling with anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, but with the glamorization and sensationalization of Hannah Baker’s suicide made it much worse. Emily was also a victim of suicidal contagion, which is when people emulate the suicide shown in 13 Reasons Why. Many people argue that including the scenes with self-harm and suicide is essential in order to raise awareness and start a conversation about mental health, but there is a line between raising awareness and glamorizing suicide. 

The distinct differences between Euphoria and 13 Reasons Why start with their portrayals of mental health with the main characters. Although both shows cover similar sensitive topics, Euphoria approaches these subjects with care, and helps the audience better understand people who struggle with mental health. The creator and head writer of Euphoria had also struggled with drug addiction and mental health in his youth.Due to his personal experiences, he was able to display an utter realness of these issues without glamorizing or sensationalizing it. This is extremely important when dealing with sensitive topics, since without having experienced these issues, it is easy to inaccurately represent them. While Euphoria brings up and rightfully depicts these mental health issues within the character Rue, 13 Reasons Why barely recognizes Hannah’s mental health before she died by suicide. It only focuses on the events that follow, which can be insensitive to the majority of suicide victims who have had mental health issues, rather than using suicide as an acceptable response to hardship. This is not to claim that bullying victims have not died by suicide. It shows that even in the events of bullying, suicide is the product of declining mental health, whether it was caused by bullying or not. 

In Euphoria, Rue’s depression is not glamorized. It is very real, and the show does an amazing job at capturing these moments, albeit dramatically. In the seventh episode, we see Rue switch from her manic state to a bipolar depressive episode. During her depressive episode, Rue gives insight on her depressive state in an emotional and moving monologue. Her depression ends up getting so bad that she cannot bring herself to go to the bathroom or take care of her needs. The episode ends with Rue risking a kidney infection because of her mental state, and she admits to her mother that she needs help. By giving the audience a realistic picture of bipolar disorder and the severe mood swings that come with it, the audience can clearly see that this should not be glamorized or romanticized. On the other hand, in 13 Reasons Why, we are shown that the motivation for Hannah Baker’s suicide is revenge. This is especially a harmful message to send to the audience, as many people who experience suicidal thoughts and behaviors typically feel more burdensome instead of vengeful like the show portrays. Because of this message that they are sending, it also implies to the audience that someone who is considering suicide is selfish. This type of mindset is unhealthy for the audience because it can lead to victim-blaming behaviors, and not offering unconditional love and support to people they know who may be going through the same ordeal. 

13 Reasons Why is problematic, since it sensationalizes Hannah Baker’s suicide. The graphic scene should not have been aired, but was kept in for shock value until viewers began to take their own lives. Exploiting this suicide scene was triggering for viewers, and is dangerous when you take into account the very real risk of suicidal contagion. By showing the suicide, the show drove impressionable viewers into emulating the event. However, Euphoria has its own selection of graphic scenes from drug addiction to the heavy topic of abortion, it does not glamorize or sensationalize acts that could be potentially harmful to the viewer. There is a clip of Rue’s sister finding her after Rue’s drug overdose, which could be classified as a graphic scene, but we can see that it is not being glamorized for the duration of the show. In fact, many characters actively discourage Rue from her self-destructive behaviors, as it has an effect on the people who care about her. This is one of the major differences between the two shows, which is the portrayal of these two heavy topics.

In conclusion, the portrayal of mental illness in the media is crucial, but it is also necessary to approach it with care. When we talk about these issues, it is important to empathize with others and understand each other’s experiences, which is what these shows give an opportunity for. If you see anyone that may be going through something, be sure to be supportive and help them get the help they need.If you are going through a trying time, know that you are not alone.


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Available 24 hours. Languages: English, Spanish

1-800-273-8255


SOURCES:

“Reporting On Suicide.” Reporting on Suicide, reportingonsuicide.org. Accessed 2 Aug. 2020.

“Exploring the Connection Between Bullying and Suicide.” Verywell Family, http://www.verywellfamily.com/how-strong-is-the-link-between-bullying-and-suicide-460620. Accessed 2 Aug. 2020.

Diaz, Andrea Cnn. “Generation Z Reported the Most Mental Health Problems, and Gun Violence Is the Biggest Stressor.” CNN, 30 Oct. 2018, edition.cnn.com/2018/10/30/health/generation-z-stress-report-trnd/index.html


Bella Faulk

Transcriber, writer, , editor, poet

Bella is a student at Meridian World School. She spends her time playing music, reading, and writing. She is passionate about raising awareness of the issues in her community, along with taking action against injustices.

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