Mental Health, Media, and Realism

Trigger warning: this article contains descriptions of depression, suicide, and eating disorders.

Back in early 2017 when “13 Reasons Why” was released, the internet flew into an uproar (as it is apt to do). People who had experienced mental illness were furious at the way it was portrayed, therapists hated how incompetent the school’s counselor was, and there were fears of triggering survivors of sexual assault, mental illness, and suicide attempts.

In my own experience, I did not enjoy “13 Reasons Why.” I found it immensely triggering. I’m not going to blame it for my own mental health issues, but I don’t believe it helped. I don’t necessarily regret watching it, though. I wanted to be part of the conversation and I didn’t feel that I really had a place to do that if I’d actually never seen it.

But this is not another article detailing the highly problematic ways in which “13 Reasons Why” romanticizes mental illness (although I could write plenty of those). That show kickstarted a conversation about what kind of obligation fictional media has when portraying sensitive topics. Since then, Netflix has released other controversial pieces that portray mental illness, like “To The Bone” and “Insatiable.” As online platforms are more able to create their own content, they have the freedom to portray things that wouldn’t usually make it on TV. I can't personally speak to Hulu’s original content, but one other contender stands out: HBO, specifically “Game of Thrones.”

I’m not trying to have a “things were better in the old days” attitude about this, and I’m not suggesting that we need to prevent the creation and release of content from those unconstrained by the usual rules of TV. But the question that remains for me is this: what kind of obligation do media platforms have to portray some sort of moral and true representation of the world?

I’m skirting around the topic of free speech right now, and I’m aware of that. I think it’s too big a topic to include in this piece, so I’m not going to talk about censorship on social media platforms or anything like that.

But let’s get back to the question at hand. “Game of Thrones” shows a brutal, male-dominated world where women are often relegated as sexual objects and prizes. “Insatiable”'s premise is that a fat girl develops an eating disorder, which causes her to get skinny and hot. Even “To The Bone,” which doesn't promote behaviors, may be extremely triggering.

I suppose some would say that “snowflakes” should just avoid these types of media because they could be triggering. That’s a highly problematic attitude to have, of course, but there is a grain of truth to it. “To The Bone” and “13 Reasons Why” both have trigger warnings to indicate the coming graphic content, and this is a good thing. And speaking to my own experience, while I didn’t decide not to watch either because of the trigger warning, it gave me some preparedness for what was to come.

Again, I find myself coming back to “13 Reasons Why.” Everything about that show was so highly problematic. I think perhaps the real problem here is how widely it was consumed, especially by those in high school. When I was in high school, I was pretty much already mentally ill, or at least getting there very quickly. But I didn’t know that it was happening, really. I thought it was just puberty being a bitch. I don’t know what that show would have done to me. Now, having experienced depression and self-harm and quite nearly suicide attempts, it just makes me sad. It’s too relatable, and it’s triggering.

This article is turning into a self-indulgent ramble, but I don’t know if I have a good conclusion to wrap things up with. I still don’t know what kind of obligation media has to portray realistic mental illness. I know that personally, I prefer realistic portrayals (as in “To The Bone”) as opposed to the overly dramatic “13 Reasons Why.” And I think that shows like “13 Reasons Why” could be highly detrimental to those struggling with mental illness. But I honestly don’t know who should be responsible for fixing these problems.