Thursday, July 5, 2018

the romanticization of mental illness in media


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)

Friday, June 29, 2018

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When I was twelve I discovered the concept of fashion blogging. I made one of my own and formed a friendship with a fellow fashion blogger named Samantha. She lives in San Francisco, but we communicate using technology. We have conversations via email, Skype, phone calls, and texting. Our preferred method of communication is texting because it can be done at any time of the day, and we can instantly share things with each other. Samantha is my closest and oldest friend. We’ve been friends for nine years. We are just as close as friends that can see each other frequently in real life, but since the distance makes that impossible we converse using our phones. I’m twenty and all of my friendships are maintained using my phone. Two of my friends are attending college in different states, one of my friends is attending college hours away from where I live, one of my friends lives in New York City, and as I mentioned before Samantha lives in San Francisco. While I can occasionally see some of these friends in real life, we mostly have to use our phones to keep in contact. However, there are other ways that we keep in contact as well. Samantha frequently sends me care packages in the mail and I recently received a package from a friend attending art school in Chicago. Texting is our primary form of communication, but I don’t believe that it makes our conversations more impersonal. I would argue that it’s proof that our friendships are strong because we make the effort to keep in contact using technology.

My blog allows me to share my opinions about various aspects of the fashion industry as well as showcase my own personal style. I sometimes write about television shows and films that I find interesting both aesthetically and mentally. I write about real people that inspire my sense of style as well as fictional characters that inspire me. However, my blog is not limited to the subject of fashion alone. I also write about a variety of social justice issues as well as sharing personal experiences that are completely unrelated to fashion. I have found that fashion blogging is the healthiest form of using the internet because it is like having a personal diary as opposed to a scrapbook filled with photographs that you feel pressured to share with the public. You can share your thoughts and your art without having to worry about the response of your peers because you are in control of everything. I was discussing social media with my friend Samantha and she said: “When I was becoming a young adult the internet was for personal branding and I still don’t like that feeling. To me social media is presenting a version of yourself at a party, but having a blog is like decorating your own house.”

Blogging has also given me an escape from my small town. I live on Cape Cod, a small peninsula in Massachusetts. I’ve always felt like an outsider because my peers didn’t share or understand my interests. Cape Cod also didn’t give me any outlets for my creative endeavors. Blogging has given me the opportunity to form relationships with people that share my interests and support my work. It has also given me the opportunity to travel. I’ve taken several trips to New York City that have allowed me to experience various aspects of the fashion industry. Without blogging, I wouldn’t have been able to express myself the way that I want to.

In the article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” by Jean M. Twenge, Twenge explores the possible negative effects of smartphones on modern adolescents. In the first half of the article Twenge examines the rise in smartphone usage among teens and how that has changed the way they interact with each other while the second half of the article focuses on how smartphones and subsequently social media have played a role in the decline of the mental health of adolescents. While I agree with Twenge on some points, I ultimately disagree with the majority of the article based on my own personal experience and from observing the people around me.

In the first half of the article Twenge notes the rise in smartphone usage among teens and compares the way they live their lives today to the way teens have lived their lives in the past. Twenge asserts that: “The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the Millenials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millenials not just in their views but in how they spend their time.” Twenge emphasizes the difference between Millenials and their predecessors. Modern technology, specifically smartphones, have drastically changed how people currently live their lives. The members of iGen have grown up with smartphones whereas Millenials did not grow up with smartphones or even most of the technology readily available today. Twenge mentions how smartphones influence the social lives and mental health of teenagers today. Teenagers spend more time on their phone than with other people, and spend a lot of time at home in their bedrooms. She goes on to argue that this isolation can lead to mental health problems and difficulties navigating social situations.

The focus of the second half of “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation” is on how smartphones and social media have played a role in the decline of the mental health of adolescents. Twenge mentions two statistics gathered from the Monitoring the Future survey: eighth-graders that spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say that they’re unhappy in contrast to those that spend less time on social media (Twenge). Those who spend more time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those that don’t often hang out with their friends in person (Twenge). Twenge proposes that these statistics imply that: “If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen.” She is stressing the fact that activities unrelated to technology are conducive to more happiness, whereas activities involving technology lead to more unhappiness. However, she also mentions that: “these analyses don’t unequivocally prove that screen time causes unhappiness; it’s possible that unhappy teens spend more time online. But recent research suggests that screen time, in particular social-media use, does indeed cause unhappiness.” Twenge is supporting her overall argument that the usage of modern technology is a large contributing factor to a decline in mental health.

I disagree with Twenge that the usage of modern technology is a large contributing factor to a decline in mental health. I do not think the usage of technology has caused or worsened by struggles with mental illness. People have been suffering from mental illness since the dawn of time, and how technology affects a person is an individual experience. Technology has mostly had a positive effect on my life. I do think that isolation causes unhappiness, although this is not something solely caused by smartphones. My depression and anxiety are isolating, and my smartphone has nothing to do with that. I agree that spending more time with people in person is healthier than spending the majority of your time in your room staring at a screen. I have had to deal with friends paying more attention to their phones than to me which was frustrating, but that ended up being a hint at their overall character rather than something I experience with the friends I have now.

I would argue that the most fulfilling experiences that I’ve had in my life have been due to the existence of the internet and ultimately made possible by the creation of smartphones. Without the presence of the internet I wouldn’t have been able to discover what fashion blogging was without it, and I couldn’t have the experience that I have writing about fashion. I wouldn’t have been able to attend the Independent Fashion Bloggers conference in New York City and meet the woman responsible for sending my information to Seventeen magazine which led to my shoot with them. I wouldn’t have been able to help my godfather out backstage at a runway show at the age of seventeen because he communicates almost exclusively via texting because he’s extremely busy. I wouldn’t have been able to model on the runway at his show for the same reasons. Social media allows me to share these experiences with my friends who were not there to witness them. It also encourages me to be creative. The only social media account that I have is an Instagram account where I post photography, my favorite paintings, screencaps from films that I like, and images that I can caption stating my views on topical issues.

Overall, I do not think the existence of smartphones and forms of social media have negatively affected my life. They certainly haven’t caused or worsened my struggles with mental illness. If anything, they have made me a more creative person and allowed me to meet people that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten the chance to meet. They have allowed me to have experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten the chance to have. The existence of smartphones and subsequently social media has mostly improved my life. As for Twenge's article as a whole, Psychology Today published an article challenging Twenge's stance on modern technology and its effect on young people. In conclusion, I think that mental illness in young people should be further examined.

Friday, April 20, 2018

get free


I've struggled with anxiety and depression for over a decade. I've been a creative person for my entire life. The depression ate away at the creative part of my brain until it completely disintegrated, and I was left with a clouded mind devoid of any ideas to pursue. My mental health began its most dramatic decline when I entered high school, and this was when I discovered Lana Del Rey. I listened to her first album Born to Die and immediately connected with it lyrically, sonically, and visually. The lyrics demonstrated her talent to channel her sadness into art, and I appreciated the honesty in her writing. She sang about her pain very bluntly, and showcased the truth about depression which is that there are long periods of time where you don't feel happy at all. The instrumentals brought to mind old films and hip hop that I listened to as a child, and the juxtaposition deeply resonated with me. The visuals present in her lyrics brought back memories of visiting places, watching films, and admiring icons. She references New York City and a variety of places in the state of California, both places that hold a lot of pleasant memories for me. The lyrics brought a variety of old films like Rebel Without a Cause and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to mind. She references James Dean in her lyrics and portrays both Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the music video for "National Anthem." I purchased all of her albums from that moment on, and when her latest album Lust for Life came out last summer I purchased it immediately. Her albums have gotten progressively less bleak since Born to Die, and it was a happy coincidence that Lust for Life was released right as I was committing to making significant changes in my life.


When she references California in her songs I remember walking down Hollywood Boulevard, visiting the Griffith Observatory, watching palm trees sway in the wind, admiring the pastel houses in Santa Monica, and walking down Santa Monica Pier. I remember feeling the heat of the sun in a way that I have never felt in Massachusetts, even during the hottest summers. I remember how Los Angeles lit up at night, the excitement never fading like it does in my small town when night falls. I remember the blue sky that provided the backdrop for my cousin Merari's wedding, and how everything looked like a painting when you looked down from the mountain where everyone watched the ceremony take place. When she references New York City I remember the anticipation that I feel whenever my bus arrives at the terminal and I step onto the pavement, ready to explore the city. I remember styling models for a runway show, everything a blur of glitter and lace. I remember dancing on the couch of a nightclub because there was no room on the dance floor. I remember being thirteen and attending a conference for fashion bloggers where I met two famous designers. I remember making new friends and feeling my symptoms fade until everything seemed brighter even for a moment. 


In the song "Get Free", written by Lana Del Rey, Rick Nowels, and Kieron Menzies, she uses metaphors to signify that her depression has lifted. It represents the mindset that I want to have someday, and it represents hope. Del Rey sings:

Finally, I'm crossing the threshold
From the ordinary world
To the reveal of my heart
Undoubtedly, that will for certain
Take the dead out of the sea
And the darkness from the arts

Del Rey sets the tone for the rest of the song by describing finding peace after years of depression. The opening lyrics "Finally, I'm crossing the threshold/From the ordinary world/To the reveal of my heart" demonstrate this. These lyrics really resonate with me because I want to experience this feeling, and recently I've felt that this goal is more attainable than ever. With the support of my family and friends, therapy, and medication I feel hopeful that I will be able to achieve my dreams and flourish. I'm still struggling, I have more bad days than good days, I haven't fully figured out which combinations of medications work for me, and accessing the creative part of my brain is still a struggle. However, I've started evolving as a person and as that development continues I hope to experience what she describes in the song. I want my social anxiety to lessen, I want to be able to access the creative part of my brain whenever I want, I don't want to feel tired all of the time, and above all I want my struggle with mental illness to end. 


Later in the song Del Rey expands on her description of depression and describes finding the initiative to do what she wants to do in life rather than do what others tell her to do. Del Rey sings:

Sometimes it feels like I've got a war in my mind
I want to get off but I keep riding the ride
I never really noticed that I had to decide
To play someone's game or live my own life
And now I do
I want to move
Out of the black (out of the black)
Into the blue (into the blue)

When she sings "Sometimes it feels like I've got a war in my mind/I want to get off but I keep riding the ride/I never really noticed that I had to decide/To play someone's game/Or live my own life" she's describing making the decision to break free from the expectations of others and deciding to live life on her own terms. When she sings "And now I do/I want to move/Out of the black (out of the black)/Into the blue (into the blue)" she confirms that she's made the decision to live life on her own terms and she uses the colors black and blue to represent darkness (depression) and the light (happiness and independence). I can relate to these lyrics because this year I'm committed to living my life on my own terms and doing what is best for me as well as my mental health. I've realized that I can live my life at my own pace and that I should just do what I'm comfortable with. Prioritizing myself in order to preserve my mental health is the best decision I've ever made.