Portraying Mental Illness In TV Shows

Hi everyone!

In this post, I am going to discuss two TV shows I have recently watched which both focus on mental health issues. The first, 13 Reasons Why, was a Netflix series that I found to have a poor representation of the issues that it focused on, while BBC series Overshadowed was what I thought was an accurate depiction of eating disorders which I greatly enjoyed.

The portrayal of mental illness in the media is important to me because what people see on TV can greatly impact the way that they view mentally ill people. In 2004, Psychology Professor Otto F. Wahl did a study which found that many people get their information about mental illness from the mass media; “What they do see can color their perspective, leading them to fear, avoid and discriminate against individuals with mental illness.”

As well as damaging public perceptions, myths and stereotypes enforced by the media also affect people with a mental illness, as the fear of stigma can prevent individuals from seeking treatment. According to Psych Central, one study even found that workers would rather say they committed a petty crime and spent time in jail than disclose that they stayed at a psychiatric hospital.

This post contains spoilers for 13 Reasons Why and Overshadowed, so be wary of this if you plan to watch them!

13 Reasons Why (2017)

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13 Reasons Why follows teenager Clay Jensen, in his quest to uncover the story behind his classmate and crush, Hannah, and her decision to end her life.

My first issue with 13 Reasons Why is that the protagonist, Hannah, is extremely manipulative and uses suicide as a revenge tactic to get back at the characters who have wronged her. The plot consists of Hannah’s love interest, Clay, listening to cassette tapes that she left behind when she killed herself, which essentially blame the other characters for her death one by one.

“Welcome back. So glad you’re still listening. Are you having fun? You must be wondering who’s next, and why. Is it you? What did you do? How did you end up on these tapes? Maybe you did something cruel or maybe you just watched it happen. Maybe you didn’t even realize you were being cruel. Maybe you didn’t do anything at all. And maybe you should have. Too late. I think you know exactly what you did and after these tapes, you’ll never forget it. I know I won’t. Oh, and, uh, by the way I’m still dead.”

The show’s overall message is to be more aware of how you act towards people, as you never know how it may impact them, but the way that the tapes mess with the characters and are presented as some kind of game to taunt them is so wrong. This way, the message is about blame, not responsibility- all of the characters are responsible for what they did to Hannah, but none of them are to blame for her decision to take her own life.

Also, the fact that quite a few characters only gave Hannah quite trivial ‘reasons why’ is another big problem; it makes Hannah come across as overdramatic and sensitive, due to the fact that it brushes over the mental health issues that she clearly faced. Instead of detailing why Hannah was so affected by seemingly minor things, and giving a realistic and informative depiction of mental illness, the show presents an utterly unlikeable main character, whose mental health issues are brushed under the rug.

Not every suicidal person shows signs, but the show should have delved deeper into Hannah’s illness, given that she was the main character. Hannah could have been an excellent example of mental illness, had we actually seen any of her illness. She clearly suffered a lot because of mental health issues, but the show focuses on her pathetic revenge fantasy instead of why she was affected so much that she felt the need for revenge.

My main issue with 13 Reasons Why was the incredibly graphic suicide and rape scenes. In fairness, there were warnings at the beginnings of the episodes to let viewers know about the content, but it was way more horrible than most viewers expected. In the defence of the producers, I completely understand why the suicide scene was included; Selena Gomez said: “We wanted to do it in a way where it was honest, and we wanted to make something that can hopefully help people because suicide should never ever be an option”. However, I believe that the impact of Hannah’s suicide would have been just as powerful and gripping to viewers without the act itself being shown- it was known information that Hannah was dead in the first episode, and we had seen how it had affected her family and peers throughout the season, the point had been made.

In 2014, The New York Times studied the idea of suicide being contagious, and reported that there is a link between heavily publicised suicides (such as Robin Williams’ suicide in 2014) and suicide rates. As a result of this link being found, theAmerican Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSA) published guidelines regarding how the media should report suicides, in order to avoid the ‘copycat effect’. The guidelines make sure that coverage of a suicide doesn’t glamourise suicide or present it as a solution to an individual’s problems; and they also specifically say not to describe the method of death, or use graphic images of the suicide attempt- 13 Reasons Why did exactly that.

Studies conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health studies have found that the risk of suicide increases when specific details of the method are shared publicly, as they essentially give vulnerable consumers a “how-to” guide. 13 Reasons Why was massively popular, being streamed by millions of people, and the search search phrase “how to commit suicide” rose 26% above normal after the show was released. Thankfully, “suicide prevention” went up 23%; and “suicide hotline number” increased by 21%, but nonetheless the possibly harmful affects of the show can be seen through this.

A part of this scene that I found extremely upsetting, but nonetheless very powerful, was Hannah’s mother finding her after her suicide- this was absolutely heartbreaking, and this was the right way to show that suicide should never be an option. A good aspect of the show was how it showed people dealing with Hannah’s suicide, as it was important to show people the impact that ending their life would have, but it would have been a lot better if the show followed the characters grieving, not being guilt-tripped, alongside an exploration of Hannah’s mental health issues, which ultimately lead viewers to the understanding that Hannah’s suicide was her own fault, and because of her mental illness. Had there been less finger-pointing and more detail on mental health issues (with less graphic details on suicide itself), the show could have been just as powerful, but with a better message.

However, I don’t think that the producers of 13 Reasons Why had bad intentions with the show. All of the mistakes with the show still have a good message, they were just put across in the wrong way, and likely did more harm than help. I haven’t seen this personally, but while doing research for this post, I discovered that Netflix produced a bonus episode of the series, called ’13 Reasons Why: Beyond The Reasons’. This episode included information about mental health and ways to get help. This is obviously excellent to hear, and shows that they did care about the wellbeing of viewers, therefore it’s unfair in my opinion to act as if the producers put out the show thoughtlessly, and sensationalised suicide for views with no consideration for people who may be greatly affected by it.

Contrary to how this post makes it sound, I did enjoy 13RW; I specifically liked the structure of the plot, the tension throughout the season, and how the show showed the impact of suicide on loved ones powerfully. Hopefully, the showmakers have acknowledged the criticism of the first season, and make sure the second season explores mental health issues in more detail, while avoiding the graphic depictions that made the show unnecessarily unsettling.

Overshadowed (2017)

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Overshadowed tells the story of a young Irish vlogger called Imogene whose life spirals out of control as she develops anorexia.

I think that the structure of this show allowed for its message to be conveyed very powerfully. Showing the main character’s eating disorder develop through vlogs, which are very normal, made the story hauntingly realistic. Also, the metaphor that showed her anorexia was very powerful; in Imogene’s vlogs, her ED follows her around as a literal person (named Anna), who tells her what to do with regards to eating. To me, this was a very impactful way to show her thoughts and depict what living with an eating disorder is like, as it shows the internal conflict she faces, as well as how her disorder has control over her actions.

“Our message is, ‘Don’t mess about with your body and your food intake. As a mother, be careful what you say to your kids. Because that’s in it too. If you have got a problem, seek help and this can be fought. Eva is living proof of that. If you get help soon enough you can fight this. There are experts out there who understand anorexia.” – Producer Kay Mellor

Similarly to 13 Reasons Why, something I admired about the show is how it showed the impact of Imogene’s eating disorder on her friends and family- it details how her family beginning to be heavily affected by their worries for Imogene, and it also shows how her friends began to suffer as a result of seeing her being consumed by her illness. One scene that really stood out to me was a scene where Imogene’s friends invite her over to talk to her about her eating and see if she is okay, and she locks herself in the bathroom and has a breakdown, with Anna telling her that her friends are toxic, and jealous of her. This showed her instability, which helped viewers understand just how much her disorder affected her, and showed a side of mental illness that 13 Reasons Why failed to do in my opinion.  This scene was very powerful as it showed how much seeing her deteriorate scared her friends, and it sent a message about how mental illnesses, specifically eating disorders, can affect your loved ones- Imogene eventually began to recover because she realised how much it affected her family, and this show sends a message to ED sufferers that people do care about them, and that their disorder can hurt people close to them as well as themselves.

 

Another thing that I found uplifting about Overshadowed is that it has a real recovery story behind it- writer Eva O’Connor, who plays Anna, struggled with anorexia as a teenager and wanted to see her experience represented properly, as she believes that glamourising the illness is “disgusting”. “Writing this was the final middle finger to my eating disorder”, she said in an interview about the show, which was very interesting to read.

As well as giving what I think is an excellent depiction of mental health issues, Overshadowed was also a very entertaining and gripping show. Although nearer to the end of the series, it became quite overdramatic and slightly unrealistic, it’s important to remember that this is meant for entertainment, not education, but does a brilliant job of both. I also liked that the episodes were very short, as it built tension very effectively and kept me hooked. I couldn’t recommend Overshadowed more, and although the show doesn’t end suggesting another season may happen, I really look forward to seeing more of Imogene’s story, or hope to see the BBC produce similar shows with equally impactful storylines.

Thank you for reading! Let me know what you think about the 2 shows, and please tell me if you know of any other TV shows about mental illness that you think I’d enjoy!

-Eden

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