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We Need To Stop Romanticising Mental Illness

This is a video that was suggested in a post on my community tab and it’s something that I’ve briefly spoken about in the past but not in much detail: Glamorising and Romanticising Mental Health Issues.

I find there’s a very fine line between making discussion around them normal, removing the stigma and helping people understand it’s not an inherently BAD thing AND glamorising it to make it seem cool or trendy or whatever the kids say these days. 

I remember back when I was younger, probably in the early 2010s, Tumblr would be filled with artsy black and white photos with quotes about how ‘she just wanted it all to end’ and ‘if only he loved her she wouldn’t be so broken’ and ‘you look so beautiful when you cry’ and rubbish like that. Mostly teenage girls would constantly post about their depression or anxiety or any other issues, not to document their life or help others, but as a search for popularity and to feel different and special. 

You’d even see people role playing as having multiple personalities or sociopathy or a number of other disorders. 

When I first started making Youtube video I made a video about Tumblr’s issue with blog promoting anorexia and other eating disorders – posting ‘thinspiration’ and egging each other on, glamorising eating disorders. 

I’d always have to ask: at one point do these things stop being relatable and start glamorising a very real, very difficult set of illnesses? 

This isn’t just an internet problem either – books, films, TV, even music have all glamorised mental health problems at some point. Even when it’s not intentionally made that way, it’s important to look at how your audience is relating to your characters and what they can and will take away from them. 

One blog post I found wrote about the film The Virgin Suicides based on the book of the same name, the author of the post, which is linked below, observes that in the film, the boys ‘almost fetishize their depression, spying on them through their windows, explicitly saying other girls in school lack their allure and mystery. The cinematography loads onto this fetish, with the camera lingering on the girls as they laugh, lick their lips, and twirl their hair. These scenes then often cut to a more sombre image, such as a silent shot of the youngest sister bleeding in her bathtub after her first suicide attempt. All of this is done with a hazy, coloured filter meant to convey the reminiscence and embody the boys’ nostalgia.’ 

She goes on to conclude that this is a serious issue because ‘the movie therefore sacrificed an accurate portrayal of the dangers and damage of mental illness for the sake of intrigue and mystery, which means a step backwards for the representation of mental illness in the media.’ 

More recently we’ve seen a similar issue with the show 13 Reasons Why. I watched the first season, then the second one was boring and I didn’t watch anymore than a couple of episodes into it, so in talking about this, I’m only going to be covering the first season. 

13 Reasons Why follows the story of Hannah Baker – a girl who has a series of awful things happen to her, she is depressed, she records tapes about everything that’s happened, she then kills herself and gets a friend to pass those tapes round to everyone so they feel ‘responsible’ for her death with the line ‘I’m about to tell you the story of my life, more specifically why my life ended. And if you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why’. It’s a messed up premise as it is, but couple this with the main character’s obsession with Hannah and I start to see some big problems. I wouldn’t say it’s the worst offender but it’s one of the more popular ones.

In a very similar way to the Virgin Suicides, he fetishises her and her issues. It’s interesting because while one person I spoke to said ‘the difference with 13 Reasons why is that Hannah is an awesome character in her own right, who Clay likes, who happens to have mental health issues’ but I pointed out to him that that’s what he took away from watching it a mature nearly 30-year old adult. Teenagers are not likely to see the same thing, as we see from the way people post about Hannah and the show in general. Her health issues are romanticised, especially from Clay’s perspective of ‘I could have saved her if she’d only let me love her’.

A quick search for Hannah Baker on Tumblr gives us a good impression of how teenagers view her character and honestly, I couldn’t remember a single character trait she had outside of her health issues… what was she interested in? What was she good at in school? I think she worked in the cinema for a while? But other than that… nothing. And Tumblr was no help in telling me any of that stuff about her. It was just beautifully lit shots of her crying, black and white gifs with captions like ‘so young, yet so damaged’ and blogs with names like ‘depressing things’ posting quotes from her about ‘what if it’s too late?’ or ‘I need everything to stop’

It’s not showing the trauma and the dark side of her illness, it’s making her seem cool and beautiful and appealing while saying incredibly messed up stuff. 

I’m not saying the show did everything wrong, I just think they were a bit naive about how their teenage audience would respond – you have to remember that they based this series on a YA book. Even if they label the episodes as 15 and a few at 18, younger teens were always still going to watch it. 

That said, I don’t know how other people felt but I remember the scenes of Hannah’s actual suicide made me feel so uncomfortable. It felt raw and real and sadly relatable and I think that’s the right way to portray it. It just felt like too little too late compared with the rest of the season which had been romanticising her death with characters reminiscing over her with slow mo shots and close ups and quicky music.  

However, some have criticised the scene for being a ‘graphic, sensationalizing portrayal’ of suicide which functioned as more of a ‘how to guide’ than what the producers wanted which was ‘to show that suicide isn’t easy; it’s painful and it’s scary and terrifying to go through with’ 

Other criticisms include looking at Hannah’s reason for suicide saying it’s not typical of how most suicidal people feel. Pychologists Dr Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber director of Columbia University’s anti-suicide initiative The Columbia Lighthouse Project said:

“Revenge as a motivation for suicide is not the kind of message that is healthy or productive to send,”

While Dr John Ackerman, Ph.D., the coordinator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Center for Suicide Prevention and Research followed this up by saying:

“Hannah responding to these individuals who caused her harm, or perceived harm, in a very vindictive way plays into a teen fantasy and promotes a misconception that suicidal behavior is selfish.”

13 Reasons Why is one of the more recent examples but it’s not the only one. Films like Girl, Interrupted and Prozac nation also portray a fairly romanticised image of the ‘beautiful damaged girl’, meanwhile Pretty Little Liars is full of problems. It trivialises and demonised personality disorders, has a bizarre demonising portrayal of their one transgender character, it romanticises several adults having sexual relationships with young, underage teenagers, and that only scratches the surface. It’s a mess. 

Skins was a big one when I was growing up that I think caused a lot of problems. I mean don’t get me wrong, as a drama I enjoyed it, it was great. But I think in series’ 3 and 4 in particular the portrayal of Effy was seriously screwed up and typical of romanticising the ‘damaged girl’. 

Even now, posts on Tumblr are incredibly reminiscent of the ones kids post about Hannah Baker – lots of shots of her looking beautiful but sad, black and white images, ‘relatable quotes’ about her feeling sad. A guy I spoke to about this brought up the fact that as a teenager him and his friends loved Effy’s character because ‘she was hot and she seemed sexually fluid so it’s like we all felt we’d stand a chance with someone like her’ meanwhile, I know girls at my school who literally wanted to be her. And I just think ‘were we all watching the same program??’ I mean yes, the actress who played Effy was beautiful… but the character had some serious mental health issues and the way she used drugs and sex was incredibly unhealthy – it was a coping mechanism and one which just ended up damaging and hurting her more. 

The way I remember it, she jumped between sleeping with different people not because she enjoyed sex but because she was using it to try and fill a void, the heal her or help her, because she was lonely and insecure and a mess. To see that as an appealing trait, and to have her character portrayed in a way that makes dangerous and unhealthy behaviour which did hurt her more seem appealing and glamorous and cool, it just feels incredibly problematic to me. 

We’ll come back to this issue a little later on but I have to ask… if Effy’s character was played by a woman who wasn’t attractive would people have still felt the same way towards her? Was her behaviour romanticised mainly because she was beautiful? 

We see a similar issue when kids on platforms like Tumblr post about Lana Del Ray’s music – don’t get me wrong, I like her music. But the lyrics about her feeling sad with the slightly hipster vintage aesthetic, the fact it’s this cool, beautiful woman singing about them… does it normalise issues like depression or romanticise them. 

I have to ask, would kids still be posting this stuff if instead of a photos of Lana looking beautiful with lines like ‘Everything is Fine but I wish I was dead’ it showed a 40 year old man crying in bed who hadn’t showered in a week in his pajamas, sat in a bed which hasn’t had clean sheets in 2 months. Or how about a mother of 3 kids who looks after them day after day and seems put together on the surface but underneath it all is suffering. I mean the message of ‘I wish I was dead’ would still be the same and could be attributed to any person… but two shows the harsh reality of what a person in that state of mind might be doing… and the other romanticises suicidal thoughts and I don’t think that’s healthy. 

Another big trend we have to talk about is the incorporation of mental health issues into fashion and clothing… is this normalising issues, trivialising them, glamorising them or even exploiting them to make money? 

I think we’ve all seen brands like Forever 21, amongst others, selling ‘sad girl’ hats and t-shirts with mental health related ‘slogans’ and labels on them. And it’s not even just general stuff, you can buy a t-shirt with Kurt Kobain’s suicide note on it… why anyone would want to wear that, I have no idea but you know, I guess suicide is cool when it’s done by a creative genius, right?!

Rhiannon Picton-James wrote for the New York Times that ‘The problem with the prettification of mental illness is just how out-of-kilter it is with reality. It’s almost suggested as a desirable character trait for women to have’

I can understand why for some people it might be seen as saying ‘hey, I accept this part of me’ but on the other hand, it’s making illness a fashion statement. Would you really walk around with a t-shirt that was mocking or trivialising cancer or MS or alzheimers? 

And the final issue I want to talk about is the portrayal of ‘celebrity’ and ‘influencer’ mental health… 

One blog post I found critiqued this by writing: 

‘Though well-meaning, more and more celebrities are contributing to a certain type of glamorization by “coming out” about dealing with their own anxiety and depression. Inherently, celebrities are idolized by those same young people who are vulnerable to glamorized mental health struggle. And as celebrities, their struggles are often packaged as inspiring narrative missing the harsh realities of facing those struggles.’

And I can’t help but agree. While it can sometimes be helpful or inspiring to see someone you look up to say ‘I have or had these issues and here’s how I overcame them!’ It’s not always realistic. 

On that note, Journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson also highlighted this trend, pointing out that another issue of glamourising mental health issues is that it only makes them ‘appropriate’ for certain people. She writes: 

‘It was cool to be a bit mad. It meant you were a genius or a creative. It wasn’t just that certain mental illnesses were acceptable, but certain mental illnesses were acceptable in certain types of people: if you had a special skill or talent or architect-set cheekbones. All of this remains true. Sure, Robert Lowell, great poet. Madness excused. Amy Winehouse, voice of a goddamn goddess. We’ll allow. Kathy, 54, works at Morrisons. Not so much. White woman who has recourse to a national newspaper (called Hannah). Perhaps. Black man who comes from a cultural background where mental illness isn’t recognised and whose symptoms might be put down to the racist trope of aggression in people of colour. Nah, mate.’

And this of course, brings me back to the points I made about Lana Del Ray and the character of Effy amongst others. 

And this is of course a very real issue we need to resolve. We can’t just decide to accept or reject or ignore or romanticise someone’s illness because of who they are or their background – every single person with a mental health issue needs to know that it’s ok, it’s normal, you deserve kindness and support. 

We can’t have a bunch of people exaggerating or exploiting their illness to seem cool, while another group of people is afraid to say anything incase they’re labeled ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ or called names or looked down on. 

Rola Jadayal thinks that this has a bit effect on teenagers: “More and more teenagers are convinced that depression, anxiety, anorexia, and bipolarity are ‘cool’ or can make you ‘special,’’

Going back to what I said in the beginning about blurring the lines between relatability and romanticising, journalist Jess Joho suggests that this is still an issue today, it’s just across more platforms than just Tumblr, she summed up a lot of my thoughts by writing: 

‘Social media has increasingly blurred the line between what is authentic and what is performance — even within ourselves. While posting about our upsetting ass vibes may feel more real, for some, it might just be a new way to fit in online.’

She even warns that: ‘the trendiness of sad online culture may lead to wrongful self-diagnoses and an inadvertent trivialization of serious illnesses.’

‘The problem’ she writes, ‘isn’t that more people are sharing their mental health experiences on social media, but that some people are glorifying or misappropriating those issues without proper context.’ 

All of this brings me to wanting to end this discussion on a personal note.

I want to make sure I’m honest with you guys about my own issues. Nothing about my mental health issues is glamorous. None of it makes me more creative or cool. I mean some of you guys have seen me at one of my lowest points, literally mid-breakdown: uncontrollable tears, dribble, barely able to string words together and covered in my own blood. And while part of me hates to remember myself like that and part of me wishes I could take it back, at the same time, I’m not going to lie: That’s the reality. That’s the state I get in sometimes. It’s happened in the past a number of times and while I hope it won’t happen again and I’m working to prevent it, I can’t make that promise. I only hope if it does, it’s in private. 

Having issues with anxiety and depression means being unable to shower for 4 days and having greasy hair and smelling bad and feeling ashamed to leave the house and having to cover up mirrors so you don’t see yourself. It means losing weight, not because you don’t want to eat, but because you can’t manage to leave your bed to go to the kitchen. It means feeling like an awful mum because you can’t take your dog to the park and have to phone your ex to do it while you stay in bed and cry. 

It’s when you finally start feeling good about yourself and you treat yourself to a day out but on the way you get a little warm on the tube and you take your jumper off and suddenly everyone in the carriage is looking at the cuts and scars on your arm and you feel like the biggest freak in the world so you just jump off the train, turn around and head straight home, making sure that on the next train you keep your jumper on and stay sweaty and disgusting because it’s better they judge you for that and not your health, right?! 

It’s meeting someone you really like and having to have that awkward conversation of ‘Look, I need to be honest with you, sometimes I get sad and I’ll try and push you away or I’ll retreat into myself for days at a time and I need you to know it’s not personal and it’s my problem, I AM working on it and I’m not asking anything of you but if you can’t deal with that, you need to walk away now before I get real feelings for you’ and, more often than not, people deciding to walk away. 

It’s the time I hadn’t showered in days and I had no clean clothes and I had to go to my counselling appointment so I cycled there and then panicked outside and sat on the floor and cried in the street and had to call my counsellor to come out and get me. And while I was sat there on the floor, a disgusting mess, in tears, 2 teenage girls came up to me and mistook me for a homeless person and started taunting and teasing me for being a disgusting failure who no one wanted. 

I want to be real with you guys. I want you to know you’re not alone if you feel this way, I want you to know what it’s like for the people around you who might not be able to tell you themselves, but I never ever want you to think that I think it’s cool or quirky or a personality trait. 

I am a person who likes books and painting and dogs and octopuses and biscuits and white wine and indie music and makeup and board games and I happen to have to half issues with depression, anxiety, self-harm and some major self-esteem issues that I’m working on. But those illnesses and issues don’t define me any more than having a cold or a broken arm would define me. They’re a part of my life right now and something I’m working on, but they aren’t who I am. 

And that’s where I’m going to end this. I mean there’s so much more I could have spoken about in this video – I didn’t even touch on books or go that in depth with anything too specific but I mostly just wanted to get the conversation started and hand over to you guys. 

Sources and Further Reading

The EDIT lab blog: How the media glamorizes mental Illness and why this culture is dangerous: The Virgin Suicides

The Guardian: Having a mental illness doesn’t make you a genius

The Guardian: ‘It’s nothing like a broken leg’: why I’m done with the mental health conversation

The Irish Times: Mental illness is dark. It should never be a fashion statement 

Logicat (Blog): The glamorisation of mental illness and ‘mental health merch’

Mashable: How being sad, depressed, and anxious online became trendy

National Eating Disorders Collaboration: Mental Illness in Media: Glamorisation and Other Issues

The New York Times: Please Stop Merchandising Mental Illness 

Northwestern Medicine: What TV Gets Wrong About Mental Illness

Rolling Stone: Does ’13 Reasons Why’ Glamorize Teen Suicide? 

Salon: Lights, camera, depression: Why does mental illness on TV rarely look like real life?

SELF: Here’s What 7 Mental Health Experts Really Think About ‘13 Reasons Why’

TalkSpace: Trust Me, Having a Mental Illness Isn’t Fashionable

TeenVogue: Social Media Reacts to Ban.do’s Mental Illness Jewelry Line

Mental Health Resources and Support

Samaritans (UK) 

116 123 

CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably, for men aged 15-35)

Mind

0300 123 3393 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA)

1‑800‑273‑TALK (8255)

More Resources Here

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