I have suffered from depression for over a decade. As a result, I have consumed a lot of media that explores depression as a mental illness and how it affects the afflicted character(s). Throughout my years of consuming media featuring depression I've noticed that a disturbing amount of that media romanticizes depression. The Merriam-Webster definition of "romanticize" as an intransitive verb is "to hold romantic ideas" and "to present details, incidents, or people in a romantic way." Romanticizing depression and suicide is problematic at best and dangerous at worst. Romanticization of depression can result in afflicted individuals not seeking treatment, viewing unhealthy behaviors in a positive way, and it gives the public an inaccurate depiction of a very serious mental illness. The media, especially media aimed at vulnerable youths, should be obligated to responsibly deal with mental illness by accurately depicting it. Directors of shows aimed at young people should take the initiative to do a substantial amount of research before covering such a complex topic. The public can help by raising awareness about depression and suicide, and by starting conversations about media that romanticizes mental illness and inaccurately depicts it.
Contrary to what many people believe, there are different types of depression. Therefore, depression can present itself in a variety of ways that might not match up with the public perception of what depression is. Depression is actually a category of mood disorders that include major depressive disorder (clinical depression), persistent depression disorder, post-partum depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and it also affects individuals that have bipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression include long-lasting feelings of sadness, disrupted sleep, trouble eating, no longer being able to enjoy anything that you were previously interested in, irritability, physical symptoms that can't be treated medically (muscle pain and stomach problems), trouble concentrating, foggy memory, exhaustion, loss of self-esteem, and contemplating death (Mental Health America).
According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Illness Findings given by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, major depression affects 6.7% (more than 16 million) of American adults each year. Mental Health America states that one in five teens suffer from clinical depression. Each year, young adults ages 15 to 25 kill themselves. They also state that: "the rate of suicide for this age group has nearly tripled since 1960, making it the third leading cause of death in adolescents and the second leading cause among college-age youth." This emphasizes the commonality of depression and how it has gotten progressively worse for young people over the years. It also reveals the disturbing fact that suicide is one of the leading causes of death for young people.
The romanticization of mental illness in media is nothing new. The 1597 play Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare is arguably the most iconic piece of media that romanticizes suicide. It is viewed as a classic romance, and Romeo choosing to drink the poison so that he will be able to be with Juliet even in death is depicted as the ultimate act of love. It also "punishes" the two rival families for keeping the lovers apart since both sets of parents lose their children as a result. The idea of suicide as an act of revenge is a common trope that I've seen in media and, unfortunately, it is a common fantasy of those that have suicidal ideation. I watch a lot of television, and the majority of the television that I watch features characters around my age. Almost all of the television shows that I watch featuring young adult characters cover the topic of depression. Many of these shows also cover the concept of suicide, suicide attempts, and successful suicides.
The recent Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on the novel of the same name by Jay Asher, focuses on the events that resulted in the suicide of high school student Hannah Baker. These events are narrated by Hannah in a series of thirteen tapes that she sends to each of the people that hurt her in some way. This series, which originally aired in 2017 and has recently wrapped up their second season in 2018, is the best current example of the romanticization of depression. The show focuses mainly on the events that lead Hannah to kill herself rather than the depression she experiences as a result of these events. The narrative is also fairly superficial, as it gives the impression that these events in particular lead to suicide (Sandler). The show does not fully explore the symptoms of depression. Instead, the show centers around tapes that she spent hours recording before killing herself. Her narration is unrealistic due to the fact that these tapes were recorded directly before her death (Sandler). Perhaps the most harmful aspect of the series is the scene in which Hannah commits suicide. In the novel, released in 2007, the author never actually reveals how Hannah killed herself (rumors circulate that she overdosed on pills). In the television series the audience watches Hannah calmly step into the bathtub and graphically slit her wrists with one of the razor blades she purchased from her family's pharmacy. The camera then focuses on her leaning back against the wall, crying and breathing heavily as the life drains from her eyes. Her parents discover her corpse in the following scene, and it is apparent that she has bled out. The image of her mother holding her limp body is grisly. The National Association of School Psychologists states that: "research shows that exposure to another person's suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide." Depicting Hannah's suicide in such a graphic manner was an incredibly irresponsible decision on the part of the creators of the show. The scene essentially provides instructions on how to successfully slit your wrists, and the scene itself would be incredibly triggering to someone contemplating suicide (especially someone who has specifically considered the method that Hannah uses). The narration by Clay Jensen, the main male protagonist, that precedes the scene makes it that much more unnecessary. He tells the school counselor how Hannah killed herself, describing the scene completely. The scene depicting her parents finding her dead body is much more impactful in terms of suicide prevention as it shows how suicide deeply hurts the ones you love. It is a reminder that there will be people who will be negatively affected by your death even if you are not in the mindset to remember that. It also shows how messy suicide actually is. There is nothing romantic about being found lying in a pool of your own blood before being put in a body bag.
The final mistake that the creators of 13 Reasons Why made was not including any of the resources that individuals struggling with mental illness can utilize. Hannah only speaks with the school guidance counselor twice, and only discusses her circumstances with him once. He is unsuccessful in his efforts to help her, but she has already decided to commit suicide before meeting with him. She is figuratively putting her life in his hands, and when he fails to provide adequate assistance she doesn't seek out other resources. There are many things that Hannah could have done that may have alleviated some of her symptoms. She could have spoken to her parents, she could have confided in her best friend, she could have called a hotline, she could have asked to see a therapist, and she could have tried taking medication. Ideally, she would have done most if not all of the above. Depicting Hannah utilizing these resources in the show and displaying how they can help would have been incredibly helpful to those struggling with mental illness and those not struggling with mental illness. For afflicted individuals it might have given them more hope about their circumstances and helped to destigmatize seeking help for mental illness. They also might have been introduced to resources that they hadn't considered before. For unafflicted individuals it could have given them examples of how to help loved ones struggling with mental illness.
Romanticization of mental illness in media needs to be further examined by those in the entertainment industry, and the results of these inaccurate depictions of mental illness should be studied in order to grasp the full scale of its impact on vulnerable youths. Professionals have already warned against watching shows like 13 Reasons Why, but I believe that more extensive studies involving statistics would give a greater impression on how problematic the romanticization of mental illness is. Despite the lack of statistics, there are already hints of the impact that these shows are having on those struggling with mental illness. Elana Sandler, an expert on the issues depicted in 13 Reasons Why had a disturbing revelation. A friend who is a therapist contacted her and informed her that one of her clients was describing her symptoms in a way that she never had before. She said: "As her therapist, I have curiosity around whether 13 Reasons Why gave her new language to use to describe her experience, curiosity about how the series may have validated or invalidated her own experience, and curiosity about how her depression and suicidal ideation may or may not have shifted in the absence of watching the series." This is a sign that the way mental illness is depicted in media has an effect on audiences, and a particularly harmful effect on those struggling with mental illness. If their treatment is hindered by these romanticized ideas regarding their symptoms, the results could be disastrous. If a show is going to be made about mental illness, I believe that the creators of the show should work alongside professionals in order to ensure that they are portraying the symptoms accurately and responsibly.
(all screencaps taken from baz luhrmann's 1996 adaption of romeo & juliet)