Mental health has long been a contentious topic in the media. As a kid, I grew up reading posts that romanticized depression and anxiety, making it seem like a unique, even glamorized, experience. The results of unhealthy eating disorders were interpreted as beautiful, and serious clinical conditions, including bipolar disorder, were considered issues that could be “fixed” by a new friend or romantic partner. All harmful mental health experiences were worsened by toxic misrepresentation.
Today, mental illness has become an everyday part of our language. As it becomes more normalized, however, it remains wrongly defined. Neat and orderly people claim to have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD; folks who lose their train of thought might say they have attention deficit disorder, or ADD; and students nervous for an upcoming test might assert that they have anxiety. While people might truly have these mental illnesses, other times, people just throw around these labels without recognizing the debilitating impacts that come with these experiences. In this way, these conversations don’t actually destigmatize mental health; they instead perpetuate stereotypes and make it harder for others to have the empathy and understanding.
As someone who doesn’t suffer from mental illness, I can’t fully represent how and why this is so harmful, but I know its impacts are real. Often, people are accused of “faking” their mental illness for attention or as an excuse, and this likely stems from how romanticized and glamorized it was in the media when I was growing up.
At the same time that mental illness can be romanticized, it continues to be negatively stereotyped. While some folks pretend to suffer from mental illness, others try to hide theirs. Many people diagnosed with clinical mental health conditions are fearful of being treated differently. Often, there isn’t enough mental health support offered in workplaces or in schools.
If someone who is genuinely suicidal confides in a friend or family member only to be told they are faking it for attention, this vitriolic response could be a matter of life or death. The more we belittle the real depth of these issues, the less capable we are to offer support. It’s critical that people suffering from mental health do not blow off their feelings and compromise their well-being. They must feel seen and heard.
Fortunately, I do think with the normalization and acceptance of mental health issues, there are more resources online — and with that, better representation in media.
Many of the things I’ve learned regarding how to be there for people with depression or anxiety have come from people sharing their stories and experiences online. I learned that even jokingly stating “I want to die” can be triggering for people — and not just those with mental health issues. When we downplay the gravity of that type of statement, we desensitize to it and fail to recognize when it’s real.
The negative portrayal of mental illnesses will likely persist, whether it be in books or movies or on social media. As a topic that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in our lives, it’s important to consider that these portrayals have real implications for people, and if we don’t take the reality of these issues more seriously, our lack of understanding could cause someone their life.
Portraying mental illness can certainly be a double-edged sword: It can raise awareness but also increase stigma. It’s no secret that media plays a massive role in how these illnesses are received, which is why it’s so important that every publication and news organization must do it right.