Oil and water: mental illness and entertainment

As creators get more comfortable with the topic, they may miss the levity needed to depict mental illness

As the subject of mental illness becomes less and less taboo, the media has latched on. Shows are beginning to highlight mental illness more and more. They attract millions of viewers, but they also have the tendency to create backlash for portraying mental illness in an unflattering and or unrealistic light. Sometimes things don’t mix and maybe it is time to consider that a serious topic, such as mental illness, and entertainment television do not mix well. 

The controversy of “13 Reasons Why” was inescapable for a long time. The show’s portrayal of 17-year-old Hannah Baker’s depression and eventual suicide faced significant criticism from mental health professionals. When it comes to representation, the fault in “13 Reasons Why” was not the pivotal suicide scene being unrealistic, but the aftermath of the suicide itself. The show takes place partially at Liberty High School; a place littered with bullying, violence, and incompetence. However, with the 13 tapes Hannah leaves behind, that all seems to change. Essentially, she gains the power of social change through her actions, spreading a glorified and dangerous message about suicide. In addition, the show fails to acknowledge that Hannah’s circumstances were an anomaly as bullying only accounts for around 10% of suicides (the other 90% being from mental illness). Realistically, most people who commit suicide will not impact whole communities like Hannah did. People will grieve, accept what happened, and then work to heal and move forward, but this does not make for good television. 

However, there are shows that embrace the mundane nature of common mental illness. This is the case for the Netf lix cartoon “BoJack Horseman”. The show focuses on BoJack, a cartoon horse, and his associates as they face various challenges in their lives throughout the five seasons. While some shows look for the main character to solve their struggles in an entertaining manor (finding love, facing an epiphany, or even a gory montage), “BoJack Horseman” explores the anticlimactic realities of mental illness. The eponymous character faces depression throughout all f ive seasons and though he acquires wealth and fame, he proves that money cannot buy happiness. BoJack becomes a withdrawn substance abuser who puts on a fake smile for those around him; and though BoJack is a horse, his depression is one of the most relatable as it is unexplainable and has no definite solution. This unapologetic realness is what saves the show from the same controversy as “13 Reasons Why” and exactly why it is overall praised by the mental illness community. 

It is risky to portray mental illness in the media because it is like pouring oil into water. Oil and water do not naturally mix. With enough shaking, they mix together, but they will eventually separate again. There is a fine line between informative and offensive, and though some producers find that balance, many do not. It seems that even those that get it right still have the lingering cloud of controversy hanging over them ready to spill its rain. Consequently, it is important that producers who are creating a show with mental illness as a core theme are informed and are prepared for the consequences, good or bad, they may face.


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