Mental Illness: from Stigmatized to Romanticized

Wellness

*TRIGGER WARNING

I was in a bathroom stall at school once. I know, this is a weird start. Trust the process. Anyways, the door opened and within seconds the voices of two girls took over the silence. I wasn't eavesdropping—I just happened to have working ears, and they just happened to be loud. I, not wanting to make the situation awkward by leaving the stall when they were discussing their love lives in the bathroom for whatever reason, decided to stay put and just wait. Everything was going alright until one of the girls started talking about a guy she, I'm assuming, had a crush on. Out of nowhere, the other just blurted out something along the lines of, “You should just pretend to be depressed so you'll seem more mysterious and hot.”

After I let that sentence marinate in the depths of my mind, I realized that mental illness, specifically depression, is very romanticized. You may be thinking, “It's not that deep; she was just joking.” Imagine if you have a mental illness and some person who does not have a diagnosable psychological condition pretends to have one just to seem “alluring.” Firstly, that would downplay everything you go through, as an individual with a mental illness, and secondly, it just puts into perspective just how mental illness, in recent years, has gone from stigmatized to sensationalized—and the latter may be more dangerous.

So, when did mental illness start getting romanticized? It's impossible to trace it back. From the suicide scene in Romeo and Juliet all the way to the entire plot of Thirteen Reasons Why, mental illness has always been sensationalized to a degree where it's even, dare I say, desirable. This leads us to our first topic...

The Inaccuracy & Glorification of Mental Illness in Movies & TV Shows

Before we dive into the depths of the romanticization of mental illness, it's important to test the waters and learn the basis around the issue -- inaccuracy and oversimplification. Most of us have probably come across a movie or television show that has a trope surrounded around the idea of someone being murderous or dangerous and considered a “psycho.” Maybe one movie comes to mind, specifically the popular Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho.

This movie follows an on-the-run embezzler, Janet Leigh, as she makes a pit-stop at Bates Motel, an enterprise run by Norman Bates—a man with an interest in taxidermy and, well...serial killing. It's not known what exact mental illness he has, despite the name of the movie, but he does have a spirit named “Norma” living in him, who drives him to kill. I say “spirit”, but in all honesty, it may just be an alter ego and even an outcome of having multiple personalities.

Though groundbreaking considering it was one of the first movies to make it seem like your next-door neighbor could potentially be a cold-blooded murderer, Psycho was also pretty controversial due to its blatant inaccuracy. And it's in the name itself. The main character, Norman Bates, was not a psycho by any means. Instead, many mental health professionals have claimed that he showed signs of Dissociative Personality Disorder. Therefore, calling him a psycho just because he's a serial killer just added to the stigma that real psychos face daily—if you just shivered hearing the word “psycho”, that proves just how trivialized Psychotic Disorder, or Psychosis, has become. Now, people who actually have psychotic disorders are probably scared to speak up because people may depict them to be as dangerous as Norman Bates.

We've seen inaccuracies a lot in the popular media. However, we need to talk more about romanticizing mental illness. Keeping that in mind, the best TV show to analyze is the Netflix Original Thirteen Reasons Why, which first aired in the Spring of 2017.

This show, based on a novel of the same name by Jay Asher, follows high school senior Clay Jensen after he gets mailed a box with a bunch of tapes from his former classmate, Hannah Baker, who had committed suicide just months before. There are 13 cassette tapes and in each one, Hannah explains one reason why she wanted to end herself, ultimately blaming her demise on 13 different people.

Just solely based on the summary, this TV show screams problematic. Firstly, before we discuss anything, it's important to note that suicide is rarely ever planned; it's almost always on impulse. And even if it is planned, making it seem like a successful revenge scheme is dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that this show has led to two suicides and who knows how many considerations. Tropes such as the one this show embodies are unrealistic and trivializing.

The show's target audience seems to be teenagers and young adults, which is all the more reason why it's so terrifying. It makes it seem almost like you only need 13 reasons to kill yourself. It's important to recognize that most people who attempt or commit suicide have had a build-up of events and to simplify that and extend the narrative by portraying suicide as being something so narcissistic and calculative is harmful. These are only a few of the reasons why this show faced so much backlash after it was first released.

When asked about the repercussions, the show's executive producer, Selena Gomez, replied with, “Backlash would come no matter what, because suicide is not an easy subject to talk about.” Unfortunately, that statement did little to defend, because the show rarely, if ever, went in-depth about the actual mental health aspect of Hannah's suicide. All in all, the show sensationalizes the living crap out of mental illness and doesn't even bother speaking about the issue.

A few years after 13 Reasons Why, Euphoria was released and there's a clear difference between both shows, even though they get compared a lot. Euphoria goes in-depth about mental illness, substance abuse, and even developmental disorders. 13 Reasons Why doesn't, with the exception of the blank screen at the beginning displaying the National Suicide Hotline. The shows aren't comparable.

The Glorification of Mental Illness in Literature

If you're currently a teenager or young adult, it's safe to say that you have heard of Tumblr. It still exists, but it seemed to reach its peak in the late 2000s and early 2010s and really contributed to the “emo” subculture. The platform housed many dark, yet oddly idealizing “poems” on serious topics and many of these even became part of a meme called im14andthisisdeep. Luckily, they became a joke, otherwise many of these posts are plain dangerous. Here's an example of one:

*TRIGGER WARNING*

I think the post speaks for itself as to why it's problematic. And the worst part is that this post isn't even the worst you can see on the platform.

While most wouldn't consider these actual poems—or quotes for that matter—there are legitimately published poems that just feel like Tumblr posts, but with a sense of more maturity. Let's talk about Atticus, a famous poet who started by releasing—you guessed it—posts on social media, especially Pinterest. They are notorious for romanticizing “brokenness”, especially that of women, and when asked about it in an interview with Teen Vogue, they stated, “I don't want to idolize or romanticize brokenness. But I do want to bring light to the fact that we are all kind of broken in our own way, but that doesn't mean we are not beautiful in our own way.” Here is an example of one of Atticus's poems. Deciding whether or not they romanticize mental illness, or at least human fragility, is up to you:

Now that we've got poetry collections out of the way, let's take a glimpse at the world of full-length novels. For the most part, more recent novels have stopped romanticizing every bad thing, like oblivion; however, there are some that still cross the line and yet end up getting a lot of recognition. For example, 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, which we previously mentioned, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

The novel Gone Girl turned into an ever-so successful movie of the same name that starred Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. The plot follows a married couple that seems to have a perfect relationship and life. However, one day, the wife goes missing. Officials go on to declare her dead, ruling it a homicide, turning the husband into the primary suspect because all evidence leads to him. It's a great plot—definitely a page-turner. However, when the famous plot twist occurs—which we will not be getting into because otherwise, it'll be a spoiler—things take a turn for the worse, in terms of portraying psychological conditions correctly according to many professionals, and the storyline balances on a thin string that threatens glorification fueled by oversimplification.

Romanticizing Mental Illness Has Become a Trend

Lastly, to tie everything together, let's discuss the glamorization of mental illness as a whole and just how prevalent it is in the real world. To put it into perspective, let's look at some merchandise that a popular YouTuber named Corrina Kopf released some time ago. Here is the basic idea of the line:

*The t-shirt says “my anxieties have anxieties” and the hoodie lists out the definitions of “anxiety.”*

As you can probably predict, this line faced lots of backlash. You can tell by the comment section below.

And, unfortunately, this isn't the first time we've seen something like this.

All in all, mental illness has been romanticized for a long time, but it's never as beautiful as many movies, TV shows, songs, or even books portray it to be. With approximately 1 in 4 people all over the world suffering from a diagnosable psychological condition, we, as a society, can't afford to make it seem like something less than it is. You don't see people romanticizing cancer...wait, I take that back. Our society has even idealized terminal illnesses.

It starts with you. When it comes to subjects such as mental health, it's crucial to view matters deeper than surface level and take in the dark reality—no matter how brutal it may be.

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Sania Ahmad
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Sania Ahmad is a seventeen-year-old social entrepreneur and mental health advocate from Texas. Besides advocating and entrepreneurship, she also believes in creative expression and hopes to put that into perspective via her articles! Lastly, she enjoys cats, anime, and reading psychological thrillers.