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How TV and Film Romanticise Poor Mental Health

TW: This article contains language regarding mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse 

Romanticizing mental health does a disservice to those struggling with theirs and too often TV shows and films have given off the notion that there’s a “quick fix” for characters with poor mental health. Entertainment media can glorify the idea that struggling with your mental health makes you “cool” or gives you character and we see this with shows like American Horror Story, Euphoria and 13 Reasons Why. This idea has some people thinking that any mental illness or disorder can be completely overcome in a short time span. For some people this idea is not accurate, working on yourself and your mental health can be a long process. We see couples in series and movies that have a so called ‘trauma bond’ in which they are connected by a shared traumatic experience and fall in love whilst connecting over their shared issues. 

Some of our favourite couples on our screens are put together purely because they are the only two characters suffering from a disorder or illness, and these characters then become our #couplegoals because they love each other so much their love can potentially solve any problem. I read a piece discussing a popular and current formula that drives teenage dramas in which people believe that true love can fix and heal a person. Entertainment media can invalidate the experiences of people going through hard times by creating scenarios depicting poor mental health in order to entertain rather than accurately tell the stories of those struggling. Something we are all probably guilty of, is turning to the media for our information in the hopes of educating us on topics. Society has created this sense that it is more exciting to have a relationship that feels all-consuming and is a passionate and “mad” love, rather than being in a stable and healthy relationship.

Most of the TV shows and films that use this idea are the ones whose target audiences are young and impressionable preteens and teenagers, who turn to the media to see what liking someone should look like. One of the classic concepts for rom-coms is the design of a “bad boy” who’s seemingly dangerous and emotionally distant. This character is sold to viewers as preferable over the boring “nice guy”. When people apply what they watch to their own lives, then, just as couples might think their love will save them, girls might think they can fix a boy— they might even prefer to date a “fixer upper”. By beautifying poor mental health, the concept of loving someone enough to fix them comes about. This only ends with disappointment because unfortunately, we cannot fix other people’s problems for them. 

TV shows and films romanticize emotional disorders by portraying characters as beautiful and in pain and those two don’t have to be synonymous with each other. Mental illnesses aren’t beautiful and romantic, in fact they’re anything but. They’re hard and agonizing. Over-romanticising takes away from the severity of degrading mental health and this leads to the generalization that it’s charming to have mental illness struggles. This, in turn, makes it easy for people to joke about mental disorders. The over generalizing of poor mental health stems from relatability and people wanting to find ways to connect to peoples stories and experiences without understanding that some people struggle with more than others. TV shows and films can create scenes with characters struggling with their mental health, but dramatize the illness or disorder they’re touching on. We understand that series and movies are made to entertain; but when someone with anxiety sees a scene in which a character with anxiety faints or jumps at the touch of another person, it might make the viewer feel as though their disorder is not as severe, and therefore not as important.  

Don’t get me wrong, there are some people whose disorders are as severe as shown on the screen but TV and film fail to show that disorders and illnesses work on a spectrum in which some cases do not look as drastic as others. Entertainment culture only shows the extremes of said spectrums. The media uses entertainment to promote stigmas around mental illnesses by creating notions that being “normal” won’t get you noticed and having depression makes you “quirky”. With shows like American Horror Story, Euphoria and 13 Reasons Why, we see the relationship between Tate and Violet or how Rue deals with substance abuse by replacing drugs for Jules and Hannah Baker leaves tapes for those she blames for being the reasons why she takes her own life. By having Hannah Baker commit suicide, 13 Reasons Why perhaps did not realize the fact that the show gave younger viewers the wrong idea —that taking your life is the only way out of a dark place.

The entertainment industry uses TV and film to inaccurately depict the realities of poor mental health, hence why we shouldn’t always rely on what we see on our screens to tell us how we should react to people struggling with their mental health or how we should act if we are the ones struggling. The most realistic way to “fix” or “heal” a person is to help them receive the proper support they need and remind them that struggling with a mental illness is not an overnight process. 

Sarah is a third year Bachelor of Arts student at the University of Cape Town majoring in Linguistics, English Literature and Media Studies. Sarah enjoys learning languages and writing and although she’s only written in her notebooks, she’s excited to be writing online. When she’s not re-watching sitcoms, Sarah enjoys learning about technology and programming.
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