Between the Lines: Mental Illness and Representation

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I think this topic has garnered a lot of attention over the past few years as we discuss the intersectionality of identities and the inevitable effect that it tends to have on a character’s mental health.

Despite the onslaught of “depressed” characters in fiction, though, I think we can agree that there is a startling lack of nuanced research put into bringing those stories onto screen. It has long been a concern that some media tends to glorify mental illness, by writing characters who refuse treatment, hurt others on the excuse of being mentally ill, and generally lack the genuineness of a story about mental illness. Too often, these stories are used as a cheap gimmick to gather an audience who find it relatable, and too often, teenage angst is written off as a psychiatric disorder.

But, the problems with writing mentally ill characters aside, let’s take a moment to appreciate the significance of writing such characters in the first place, whether they be coded or explicitly struggling with their mental health. To see that kind of representation, whether on screen or on page, is an incredibly painfully but important experience of coming to terms with the invisibility of what goes on in our heads, or in the heads of those around us. To have our characters seek out help, to speak out against the growing rates of depression, anxiety disorders, self-image problems can be monumental in starting a movement that encourages positive discussions surrounding these issues.

The truth about how it is represented, though, is that there is a tendency in mainstream media towards victim complexes, a common thread of misunderstood character versus world that snakes its way into most stories. On its own, it has merit. It makes for some wonderful stories, journeys of self-discovery in which the character learns vulnerability, and realizes they were never alone. Yet, these aren’t all stories of mental illness, however many times they are written off as being. Victim complexes and the overcoming of them, I think, are different from stories about those struggling to live with an illness that not everyone can see.

It is tempting to say there is no wrong way to tell a story about mental illness. After all, it is such an intimately private thing, and surely, we have to credit anyone who tries to tell it “like it is,” right? I would argue not, though. Personally, shows like Thirteen Reasons Why just don’t cut it for me anymore. I know that suicide is an option that many people tend to take, but…that isn’t the story I want to see. Too often, we want to tell the story of the losing battle, of how mental illnesses destroys lives, how we will only be heard or seen if we take some drastic action. The lack of stories where people…well, learn to live with it, is severely disappointing. What of the times that people sought help and were helped? The times that therapy worked, that medicines worked, that friendship, communication, building communities helped?

The problem with representation of mental illnesses is that it becomes a black and white picture in which you either don’t have one, or you die from it. It’s far from the case, I believe. According to the World Health Organization, nearly two thirds of people suffering from mental illness or disability never seek help due to the stigma and discrimination. In a world where we are aware of the power of media, why would we tell stories that actively discourage people from seeking help that could save their lives? Why would we present them with stories that show them that death, or dying, is an appropriate way to end a life that could have been saved by seeing that, as cheesy as it sounds, they are not alone in their suffering?

I believe that what we need, in terms of stories about mental health and illness, are stories of triumph. That does not mean stories in which there are only happy endings, but stories in which help is available, because it is. Stories in which maybe the point isn’t that the protagonist has a mental illness, but that they have full lives despite it, stories in which the be-all, end-all isn’t the unbalanced neurochemicals in the brains of the characters. There is more to these protagonists, if only we can find a way to tell these stories right, to give them the tools by which we can bring a wider awareness of the help available to those who need it.

If you or someone you know has a mental illness, there are ways to get help. Use these resources to find help for you, a friend, or a family member. 

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