The Commodification of Mental Illness

When I was in middle school, administration sent out a mass email about the show Thirteen Reasons Why

The purpose of the email was to warn parents about the themes presented in this teen-targeted show, specifically themes of self-harm and mental illness. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter if you avoided watching the series itself. The most upsetting of the clips had already been uploaded to social media in a vicious cycle of morbid interest, consumption, and sharing with others. The most disturbing and popular of the clips involved one of the main characters on the show taking her own life. Thirteen Reasons Why turned suicide into a commodity. 

The media we consume has undergone a massive transformation in the past decade. Whereas the topic of mental illness was mostly taboo during the 20th century, today it has gone so far as to become popular subject material in the internet age, frequently manipulated for the sake of shock factor. This dramatic cultural shift has had devastating effects, especially on young people, as they see these raw and complex struggles being used as cheap entertainment rather than being meaningfully discussed. Romanticized and inaccurate portrayals of mental illness are harmful to everyone who consumes that media, and represent a dangerous phenomenon that must be paid close attention to. It’s time to call out the misrepresentation of mental illness in media, and recognize our responsibility to become more conscious consumers of media as a whole, especially when mental illness is involved.

Today, there is an excess of media that uses mental illness as a focus for entertainment, whether it’s a television series on Netflix, or a viral trend on TikTok. And the primary target for this media? Perhaps the most impressionable audience there is: teenagers and young adults. 

“I worry about the commodification of [mental illness], specifically with certain mental illnesses that might skew people’s perception of what that mental illness is,” said Dave Hawley, a social studies teacher at ORHS. “There’s a problem with how folks romanticize certain pieces of mental illness. When you see [mental illness] in the media, it’s for consumption, and I wrestle with that because mental illness is very real, and how we treat it needs to be very specific and very honest and accurate.”

It’s clear that many forms of media warp the idea of what mental illness should be in the minds of those who consume said media. This is especially harmful to people who have already been diagnosed and are living with mental illnesses, as these portrayals serve as a kind of twisted version of what about 1 in 5 adults deal with every year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In this media, more often than not, mental illness is either demonized or romanticized, both being extremely detrimental to those who consume it. In many crime shows, individuals with mental illness are stuffed into the role of villain and are hauled off in handcuffs at the end of the episode, with their struggles pinned as a dangerous deviance rather than a crisis that should be dealt with meaningfully. A recent and glaring example of this is the 2019 film Joker, which received international recognition. The plotline of the movie relies on the severe mental illness of the main character, and how it led him to commit brutal acts of violence. It’s true that symptoms of mental illness can sometimes manifest as anger and violence, but to solely emphasize that and not the other aspects of the mental illness at hand severely misrepresent those who may have those struggles or convey the message that it’s not possible to get help. 

Alternately, some shows or social media trends give off the subliminal message that it’s mysterious or cool to suffer from a mental illness, which is where the problem of romanticization comes in. 13 Reasons Why is an example of this, in which a young girl not only takes her own life after experiencing horrific bullying but blames various peers of hers for her death through a series of recorded tapes. In fact, after the release of Thirteen Reasons Why, there were higher rates of suicide and self harm among the show’s young viewers, with an increase in 28.9% among children 10 to 17, according to an April 2017 study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. 

Other television series, such as American Horror Story (AHS), send the message to its viewers that there’s something beautiful about suffering from mental illness, that it’s a dramatic experience that draws attention and intrigue. In AHS, people with various mental illnesses are painted as both the villains and heroes, whose struggles are used more as a plot point than an opportunity to shine a light on the facts. To market these themes to young people who, in many cases, are trying to be seen and heard in a world that often drowns them out, has a lasting impact. 

“The media always overplays [mental illness] which makes it really harmful because people don’t realize the actual, harmful effects of the mental illness that a character is portraying,” said Waverly Oake (‘23). It’s inevitable that the media provides a pseudo-education for many consumers. For example, the rise in popularity of shows like CSI have resulted in juries having unrealistic expectations for evidence presented in criminal cases or using incorrect terminology like they have been educated in the field of criminal justice, which have both been detrimental, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Shows such as AHS and Thirteen Reasons Why are just some of many that show how damaging media portrayals of mental illness can be. It’s clear that even in the age of political correctness, there needs to be a dialogue shift in the media, so diagnoses like “ADHD” and “OCD” are not tossed around so flippantly. This will be hard. I often find myself using words like “crazy” and “depressed” in situations in which that terminology is inappropriate; the former being a derogatory word to refer to those with mental illness and the latter being a clinical diagnosis, not a temporary feeling of sadness. This is absolutely a habit I have developed through my consumption of media. But through continued personal accountability, and hopefully, a culture change in the way the media presents mental illness, this problem can be mitigated. Accurate and thoughtful portrayals of mental illness in the media are so important, and are arguably as helpful as bad portrayals are detrimental. 

“I think it’s so important for there to be visibility [in the media] about different mental illnesses,” said Lippmann. “But we want to make sure that these portrayals are accurate, that it’s not just someone saying they have OCD because they like to keep all their pencils straight. I would really like to see genuine portrayals of what different mental illnesses look like in the media so that people can feel comfortable talking about their own experiences.”

It’s clear that we cannot easily change the way the media portrays mental illness. This has been a problem reflected over decades. “If you look back to the 90s, there were ads for Friends that depicted the three women [main characters of the sitcom]  and it said ‘Cool anorexic chicks,” so it was romanticizing anorexia and people living with anorexia,” said Tessa Lippmann (‘21). “[The billboard] completely diminished the severity of this mental illness and completely ignored the serious health risk and serious struggles that people go through that struggle with anorexia.” Lippmann’s example shows just how much the media has changed its tune in terms of mental illness in the past few decades: whereas mental illness started as more of a flippant joke for media, it has turned into a major consumerist focus in recent years. Both sides of the spectrum have negative implications, however, even though the destigmatization of mental illness as a whole has had positive effects as well. However, even though we more open to talking about mental illness in the media, this has resulted in media feeling more comfortable about turning these issues into plastic, Hollywoodized versions for profit. 

So what are we to do? Even though this misrepresentation of mental illness has been a generational phenomenon, we can learn to shift our consumption in order to make sure that we are taking care of our own emotional and mental wellbeing, as well as providing a positive example for the younger and more impressionable among us. 

“I would suggest that you appreciate that this is a battle beyond you,” said Hawley. “It’s beyond me. I think what you can do, to the best of your ability, is to limit your consumption. That’s an easy sentence to say. The nasty reality is that all the tech companies have utilized the best psychology available from the best doctors from the best institutions, and they’re utilizing all this information that we’ve learned about the human psyche to capitalize on your attention.” 

While this is sound advice, the reality is that cutting back on media consumption, especially for the average teenager, is a difficult task. If you have the willpower, great. You have my respect. But if you can’t seem to stop binging on Netflix, there are a few things you can do to consume selectively in terms of portrayals of mental illness.

“Do research,” advised Lippmann. “There’s a lot of websites that will actually talk about what are accurate representations of mental illness in the media. You can look into who the directors are, who the writers are, to see if any of them have actually lived with this mental illness and if they haven’t and there’s no information about what organizations they’re working with, then that’s a pretty good indicator that it may not be a realistic representation of that mental illness.”

I personally like to use sites such as CommonSenseMedia that, while designed for parents, gives important information of the material covered in various shows, movies, and video games, so that you’re not left guessing as to how mental illness is dealt with in them, if at all. 
So the next time you switch on your television or open up a social media app, remember to be a careful consumer of media that deals with mental illness, and don’t fall prey to poor representation. Take the time to educate yourself and others about what media discusses mental illness in a healthy and accurate way… the more people focus on that kind of representation, the fewer business shows like 13 Reasons Why and AHS will get, hopefully sparking some real, cultural change as to how we deal with mental illness in the media.

By Ella Gianino