Media and Mental Illness

Media and Mental Illness

Innumerable studies have been published in the past decade linking the increase in media and digital media consumption to the increase in mental illness among teenagers. Generation Z has been largely defined by their acceptance of social media’s impact on mental health not as a phenomenon, but rather as a fact of life. However, while the world has grown privy to how media consumption affects mental health, there remains pervasive ignorance towards how media’s depiction of mental illness influences the mental health crisis.

Mental illness has a long history of stigmatization in Western media. Films as recent as 2017’s “Split” are responsible for promoting a demonized portrayal of the mentally ill. “Split” follows three girls who are abducted and tormented by a man living with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). The film perpetuates that people with DID are a danger to society, and are people to be feared.

However, stigmatization is not the only harmful depiction of mental illness. A new phenomenon has emerged of digital content that, in an attempt to destigmatize mental illness, has fostered its glorification. The past decade has seen the rise of social media groups glamorizing depression and anxiety. These Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram communities illustrate mental illness as a symbol of one’s depth of character and unique deviance from the status quo. This glorification of mental illness is upheld by mainstream media as well.

One of Netflix’s most successful shows, “13 Reasons Why,” is guilty of this malpractice. The show follows the aftermath of a young girl’s suicide attempt and its effect on her community, continuously romanticizing the young girl’s decision. While literature infamously frames suicide as romantic, today’s teenagers have access to this type of content more than ever before, and it has never been in less caring hands. Programs that potentially legitimize suicide as an answer to teenage struggles are incredibly dangerous to young viewers.

While it may not be plausible to change the industry at large, there are decisions we can make to become more responsible consumers. First, always review viewer discretionary content warnings before deciding whether to consume any form of media. Second, when contemplating watching ‘sensationalizing’ content like “13 Reasons Why,” research spoiler-free reviews that may illuminate the dangerous ideologies promoted by it. Finally, if you see content that’s problematic, speak out.