Mental Health Awareness · Mental health in the media

Mental health in mainstream media- things to consider before writing it off as a ‘bad job’ (with reference to Split, To the bone and 13 reasons why)

There’s been a lot of talk recently about Netflix’s new release ‘To the bone’, a movie about a girl’s journey through eating disorder treatment. A couple of months ago, there was huge discussion about the series ’13 reasons why’, just like there was last year with the release of ‘Split’, a movie portraying Dissociative Identity Disorder.

There’s been heavy debate surrounding such shows that attempt to depict mental illness, and online I’ve seen a lot of criticism directed at each. Concerns about the authenticity and how realistic such presentations are, the dramatisation and sensationalisation of the issues covered, the glamorisation of aspects of the illnesses portrayed, misinformation, misrepresentation, downright inaccuracies and the perpetuation of stigma already attached to issues such as personality disorders and suicide.

One thing I want to discuss though, is why sometimes the huge levels of criticism is perhaps not entirely justified, and that despite the obvious flaws in mainstream depictions of mental illness, there’s a few things we need to consider before writing them off as a Bad Job.

  1. Triggering content- one of the biggest issues people have with shows such as ’13 reasons why’ or ‘To the bone’, is that they’re triggering. ’13 reasons why’ for example was hugely graphic- unnecessarily graphic, even, and the same points could have been raised without the super realistic and distressing to watch scenes. I’m not defending or excusing that at all, especially given that producers were warned such scenes were unhelpful, but what I will say though, is that both ‘To the bone’ and ’13 reasons why’ had clear trigger warnings at the start. The fact that they contained upsetting and graphic content was made clear, so it was viewer’s discretion whether to continue watching or not. In the case of ‘To the bone’, a lot of people have been saying that trigger warnings won’t stop them watching, precisely because the disordered part of their brain wants to be triggered, or that because of their illness, they’re drawn towards content created about it. Which I totally get. But there comes a stage where an element of personal responsibility is needed. If you’ve been warned that the content will be triggering, and continue watching anyway, you’re essentially choosing to trigger yourself. I don’t think it’s fair then to complain about the fact it was triggering or to blame the shows creators for the fact you were triggered, when you could have switched off at any point. It’s also worth remembering that shows discussing content such as sexual assault and eating disorders are going to be triggering and uncomfortable to watch, no matter how graphically or sensitively they approach those issues, simply because the nature of those issues is upsetting. And while obviously a line needs to be drawn somewhere about what’s appropriate, acceptable or helpful to broadcast on a TV or cinema screen, there needs to be a recognition that shows like ‘To the bone’ shouldn’t have to sugarcoat the reality of the issues they’re discussing for fear of upsetting people (eek, sorry that point was harsh)
  2. They create a platform for discussion/chance to have conversations people wouldn’t necessarily have- how many people will have heard of dissociative identity disorder before seeing ‘Split’? How many people will have been aware that eating disorders came in all shapes and sizes, different forms, could affect anyone of any background, and that the ‘solution’ isn’t as easy as ‘just eating’ before watching ‘To the bone’? What about ’13 reasons why’- how many young people would have given the hurtful things they said and did to other people much thought? Or been aware of some of the things that could lead to depression or suicidality? Of course, all three have been problematic, sensationalised, unrealistic and at times perpetuated rather than challenged stigma surrounding the issues discussed- but what they have done is get people talking. They’ve created a platform for people to discuss issues like self harm, suicide, sexual assault, bullying, eating disorders, dissociative identity disorder. Shortly after ’13 reasons why’ came out, I had a conversation with my 15 year old cousin about it, and he said disgustedly “I think suicide’s so selfish”. I was able to challenge that, talk about the reasons why someone might commit suicide, how the show didn’t actually approach the issue in a helpful way, and offer an alternative viewpoint. Would I ever had had a conversation about suicide with my 15 year old cousin had the series not come out? Probably not- because it wasn’t something he’d ever been exposed to. But because  everyone was watching ’13 reasons why’, it got people talking, debating, sharing information and confronting issues most people are happy enough to sweep under the carpet. Given that mental health is so poorly understand and represented in the media, I think shows like ‘Split’, ‘To the bone’ and ’13 reasons why’, while are by no means perfect, are a starting point at least in bringing mental health issues out of the woodwork
  3. Target audience- I think with shows based on mental illness, people who struggle with the issues raised are quick to slam them as triggering or insensitive or unrealistic, forgetting that the target audience is not necessarily those that struggle with mental health issues, but the wider population. The creators of ‘Split’ probably didn’t sit down and decide to pump millions into a movie aimed at only those affected by the issues raised in it, and I’ve seen little acknowledgement of the fact that ’13 reasons wh’y was based on a novel (Youtuber Laura Lejeune criticised the show for being ‘indie’ by using cassette tapes, for example, yet this was actually a feature in the novel). Ultimately, ‘Split’, ‘To the bone’, ’13 reasons why’ and any other fictional movie or TV series that features mental health issues, are created for entertainment and profit. So while something like ’13 reasons’ wasn’t easy viewing for anyone affected by the issues in the show, it was pretty gripping. And while Split didn’t reflect DID as in the DSM V, it was a good watch and I’m dying for a prequel/sequel to find out more about Kevin
  4. You’re never going to get mental illness ‘right’- up until the plot got totally ridiculous, I enjoyed ‘Split’ and learnt lots of things I hadn’t known about DID and I thought the acting was good and helped put across the switches and some of the key aspects of the illness (albeit dramatised). ‘To the bone’ was produced by someone with an eating disorder, and the lead actress has suffered with one too, and yet there were still arguments that it was ‘unrealistic’ and ‘triggering’ and ‘glamourised’ eating disorders. Which goes to show that even with consultation and drawing on first hand experience, producers don’t always get it right. The thing with mental illness, is that everyone’s story and experiences will be different. Different people will be offended and upset and triggered by different things. Different people will have different ways of dealing with or discussing their illness. Different people will find different things helpful and unhelpful. So not everyone will relate to what’s shown, and not everyone will agree with how it’s depicted on screen. Too triggering and people will say such shows are ‘damaging’. Skim over the triggering parts and people will say it’s not an accurate depiction or glamourises the illness by ignoring the shitty (the ‘triggering) parts. Mental illness is hard to get right, precisely because no two people will have the same experience of it. No one’s going to be able to produce a show on such sensitive topics and win everyone over with it- but that doesn’t mean they can’t try, or that attempts to bring light to such issues should be shot down for doing so

I don’t doubt that each of the three shows/movies I discussed have been problematic in their own ways, and what I’ve written here is not necessarily a reflection on how I felt about each of them individually. What I wanted to do was raise a few points to counteract some of the backlash such depictions of mental health in mainstream media have had over the last year. If anyone wants a discussion on that side of the argument- the ways in which they are problematic, then lemme know and I can put something together! 🙂

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