Mental Health Stigma in the Media and Society

I’ve found in my time in the mental health system, many components of the experience of entering, being in, and exiting treatment stem from the immense amount of stigma that comes from media depictions of mental health and therefore mental health recovery. Movies such as Fight Club and Girl, Interrupted and people such as Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain come to mind when I conjure up examples of major figures that denote what life is like to have an extreme mental illness. However, I personally believe the media uses these figures to push society towards a conclusion that mental health as a subject is “bad” and therefore stigma is inherent. Save for films like A Beautiful Mind, there are very few examples I can think of off the top of my head where the protagonist of a film is depicted to have a positive recovery story.

What baffles me about the media’s approach to mental health stigma is their apparent unabashed need to look towards mental suffering as a means of displaying the human condition as something that inherently needs to be romanticized. This romanticization turns to fetishization, and leads to a problematic narrative regarding mental health in which those with diagnoses are made examples of in the media.

One example of this is how the HBO show Euphoria shows multiple instances of their characters being hospitalized for mental health problems, but instead of showing the positive benefits of these hospitalizations, regards them as problematic and a detriment to the character’s personal growth. Euphoria was one of the most highly praised and reviewed television shows of the past two years, premiering in 2019 and granting star Zendaya an Emmy Award for her performance for the main character Rue, an teenage opioid addict.

On the show, both Rue and her best friend Jules had experiences in the mental health system: after an overdose, Rue enters into addiction recovery, and in a flashback Jules is sent to a youth mental health facility for her depression and, it is implied, because her mother did not accept her for being trans. The problem with the respective depictions of mental health on this show is how neither character seemed to benefit from their time in treatment at all whatsoever. While this could be considered, on the one hand, a bold and valid critique of the mental health recovery system, the show doesn’t venture to say much in terms of how these systems can be improved. Instead, it simply shows how the characters go on to lead their lives after treatment, mostly in negative but dramatic, exciting and interesting ways. The dialectic here is, if you’ve seen Euphoria, is that Jules and Rue are capable of healing by finding each other—although Rue continues to use and Jules continues to act out in self-destructive manners.

This is the problem with mental health’s narrative as it is known to exist today: people believe that the issues that individuals with a mental health diagnosis experience are destined to repeat themselves, and likely cannot be cured through treatment or medication, even if this is not the case. As a result, people who tend towards having mental health diagnoses are dubbed with phrases like “I suffer from depression”. Suffering from depression is not an “experience”, it is a disease. To say someone “suffers” from something as opposed to “having” it, implies that they can’t get rid of it, and yet we as a society perpetuate an idea that is almost romantic in this regard. There must be an outlet to amend our general language regarding mental health, whether this be in the media, academic pathways, books, or even music.

Mental health stigma is a difficult topic to tackle in just one piece, and I think a good place to start is to consider that there is an enormous population of people who have entered into the mental health recovery system who leave it, only to return. This is usually because of how society it apt to respond to their existence should they not be able to advocate for themselves, due to media depictions of the mentally ill. Patients who get discharged from recovery systems have few options in terms of how to carry themselves in everyday society when they leave, because frankly, once they disclose that they have been in the mental health system they must deal with the choice of handling that stigma for the rest of their lives. This is not their fault or anything that should actually be of concern to them, but unfortunately due to society’s general attitude towards mental health based on depictions of it in the media, how are people supposed to react?

On the other hand, in my experience there is sometimes no bounds to take away from people’s aptitude for empathy and compassion. With a little bit of the right phrasing, drawing the “right” narrative for each individual once they’ve left the hospital can do wonders. Taking a not-so-great story and showing a new friend how the process of recovery has led someone away from a negative time in their life can not only prevent an individual from reentering the hospital, but make them feel as though their diagnosis doesn’t have to be chalked up to some stupid film or the tale of a celebrity’s untimely fate.

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