Trigger Warning: This blog post deals with issues relating to trauma (such as rape), mental health, substance abuse/addiction, police brutality, and suicide.
Representation is incredibly important. Our thoughts and beliefs are shaped by what we see, what we’re told, what we’re shown, and what we experience. Humans are incredibly diverse and the only identities on which a person can be an expert are their own. However, representation of these identities, things like race, gender, sexual orientation, and mental or physical obstacles, are often written or portrayed by people who know nothing about the identities they’re portraying. Things like white people writing people of color or neurotypical people writing people with mental illness take the power of representation from the very people being represented. Compounding the issue, audiences who don’t understand these identities take these portrayals as fact, spreading more misunderstanding. These problems might be more easily avoided if creators did more research and sought out advice from those they portray. “Nothing about us without us,” meaning that people should have some power or input regarding their own representation. Unfortunately, this still doesn’t happen. I can personally speak to how harmful poor representation can be concerning mental illness. Representation of mental illness in popular culture runs the gamut from pretty decent to life-threatening.
Mental illness is a vast topic. There are a myriad of different diagnoses, ranging from depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, to dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and addiction. I’m certainly not an expert on all of these, so I’m going to try to focus on the disorders and symptoms I know personally, either from personal experience or through my work as a peer support specialist.
First and foremost, I want to talk about that new show on Netflix 13 Reasons Why. I personally experience a great deal of depression and fight often with suicidal ideation, so a show that talks about suicide is a big deal for me. Before watching it I was skeptical. I really doubted it would have “good” representation, by which I mean not hyperbolic Hollywood dramatic, not flat-out wrong, and not harmful. For those who don’t know, 13 Reasons Why is about a high school student, Hannah Baker, who has committed suicide. Rather than leaving the traditional note (how messed up is it that we have cultural suicide “traditions?”) she leaves thirteen cassette tape recordings where she records the titular thirteen reasons why she was driven to suicide. Each tape is about and for a particular person in her life who impacted her decision. She left two sets of the tapes with a trusted friend and instructions that one set be delivered to each of these thirteen people in turn so that they can all understand the impact of their actions.
Hannah has a massive presence in the show, despite being dead. This is hugely problematic. The National Association of School Psychologists said in its warning about the show that “Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.” Giving Hannah such an overwhelming presence in the show masks the fact that she is dead. Her tapes “live on,” the people who hurt her show remorse, there is some closure. It gives the idea that these things are true, that Hannah herself is part of this story. But she’s not. She’s dead. The show romanticizes the notion of “I’ll die, and then they’ll be sorry.” But you’ll still be dead. You won’t exist. The show does not adequately portray the reality of death and suicide, which can be extremely dangerous to the age group it targets and depicts. The show seems to beg the question “If Hannah can get this closure, this revenge on those who hurt her, why can’t I?” Which is an extremely dangerous mindset for someone gripped by depression and suicidal ideation.
Which brings us to another dangerous problem with the show. Near the end of the show Hannah Baker’s suicide is shown on-screen. This shows either flippant disregard of trauma and triggers, or just some really impressive levels of stupidity. Dr. Christina Connolly, a psychologist working with schools in Maryland, said in an interview with PBS that “The biggest fear is that there will be copycat behavior… there is research out there showing that suicide can be contagious. It can be copycat, especially — even in schools.” Not only does the show graphically provide a means of suicide (slitting the wrists, a classic) it actually does it very well. I’ve done a lot of research into suicide methods for various reasons, and Hannah does everything right. This means that teens watching the show have, as Connolly referred to it, a “recipe” for their own death. One other thing the show does not go into, however, is the high failure rate of suicide attempts. Suicide is not really as easy as most people think. Based on a SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) study, for every one successful suicide attempt, there are 25 unsuccessful ones. And the odds are even worse for youths. If you want to kill yourself, be ready to put in the work. It’s not really something that can be done at the drop of a hat. And of course, failed suicides can often leave the victim with permanent damage, depending on the method.
Yet another problem with the show is that no alternatives are shown. Hannah Baker is shown doing exactly what we want youths to do: she attempts to seek help. In the final episode she is shown approaching the school counselor. She tells him she was raped. She tells him she has been thinking about suicide. He does nothing, and in the present defends his actions by hiding behind bureaucratic guidelines, citing that he can’t do anything unless particular phrases are used basically verbatim, like there’s a secret code word a student needs to use if they actually want him to do his job and help them. With a number of dangerous elements to the show and the most obvious avenues of help undermined as useless the show, from my perspective, is practically asking people to kill themselves. To me, someone who intimately understands its target audience, the message is loud and clear, “Kill yourself and people will finally care about you. No one can help. Even people who are supposed to help won’t help. You don’t matter. Kill yourself and you’ll matter, even if it’s only for a while.” These are real thoughts that I’ve had in the past, when I was a teenager. This show dredged up all those memories, those thoughts. I don’t fancy myself unique, I’m sure there are teens out there right now watching this show and hearing the same message.
The last thing I really want to talk about regarding 13 Reasons Why is something I briefly mentioned before: triggers. The show is extremely graphic. It depicts underage drinking, binge-drinking, and drinking and driving (triggering to people with addiction), rape (triggering to victims of sexual violence), and of course suicide (triggering to people with suicidal thoughts, people who have attempted suicide, people with severe depression). It’s one thing knowing that experts say the show is dangerous to watch, but this fact is so impersonal. Maybe some people will argue teenagers are old enough to distinguish TV from reality. All that argument does is show a fundamental lack of understanding of trauma and triggers. Let me tell you how I experienced it. Watching Hannah Baker slide into her bathtub fully clothed, wait as it fills with water, seeing the incredible pressure required to cut deep enough, down the lane not across the street… It took me weeks to recover from that scene. I was fantasizing, planning, or idly thinking about suicide multiple times a day. I’m not a teen, I’m 25 years old. This is not something that will only affect “impressionable youth”. This is something that will dramatically affect adults in recovery. This is something that is incredibly dangerous, and could cost lives.
In a bonus behind-the-scene episode of the show one of the creators, Brian Yorkey, says they purposefully included the graphic scene of Hannah Baker’s suicide. He says ” We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.” I was actually surprised to hear that from him, because I did not get that message at all from that scene. The message I got from that scene, as someone who grapples with suicidal ideation frequently, is “I could do that.” What I understand about Brian Yorkey is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t know anything about dealing with suicidal thoughts, and yet the show is extremely popular. Critics and the general public love it for tackling these tough subjects. But actual experts on these subjects hate it because it is legitimately dangerous. I personally think it’s terrifying that a show that is so hated and feared by experts can be so beloved by the masses. These life-threatening messages are being welcomed with open arms; people will begin thinking is good representation when it is actually very dangerous.
All hope is not lost, though. Another popular Netflix Original Series is doing a much better job with portraying mental illness: Orange is the New Black. OITNB covers an amazing number of mental illnesses, including addiction, depression, PTSD (specifically after sexual assault), and a few unnamed, but apparent, illnesses, such as with Lorna Morello and Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. One of my favorite depictions in the show is Lolly Whitehill.
It’s unclear what Lolly’s specific diagnosis is, but honestly it doesn’t really matter. After all, she’s not a diagnosis. She’s a person. What we do know is that she experiences episodes of psychosis, which means she sometimes hears things that others do not. She also has some pretty heavy paranoia and is a conspiracy theorist. She builds a time machine in the laundry facility out of cardboard, and was homeless before she was incarcerated. In every way she fits the trope of the crazy homeless person. However, the way the show handles this trope is very different from most shows, and this is why I love it.
Orange is the New Black has a beautiful way of humanizing its characters. It’s sort of ridiculous that this makes it unique and impressive, but many shows won’t bother doing so with characters that aren’t already accepted safe tropes. It’s especially problematic with characters who are homeless. For example, in New Girl there is a recurring character named Outside Dave. He is a homeless man, who is used for nothing more than comic relief. He’s just there to be the crazy homeless guy. In the episode of How I Met Your Mother “Right Place, Right Time” there is a homeless man named Milt who has headphones plugged into a grapefruit and thinks ATM stands for “Alien Time Machine.” This is pretty much the standard for homeless characters.
Lolly’s character is approached much differently. In part, I concede, it’s because she actually gets screen time. But that in itself is a rarity for homeless characters. Rather than ignored or ridiculed her psychosis is addressed. She is shown using coping mechanisms to deal with her voices. Outside of prison she has a stick with a bunch of metallic things attached which she rattles to keep the voices at bay. She helps others in her homeless community. She goes around her neighborhood, selling cups of coffee for a quarter, and is warmly greeted by all the people who are familiar with her. She is friendly, welcomed, and so human. It’s not often you see a show which endears its homeless characters to its audience. Her only crime was having the bad luck of her cart-wheel getting stuck while police officers were around. They asked her to leave and she couldn’t. What set them off was her voices returning (quite likely brought about by the stress of dealing with the police officers) and when she tried to cope, grabbing her stick to rattle, the officers mistook it for a weapon and tackled her to the ground.
This depiction of a person experiencing homelessness as a person is so important to me, though I have never been homeless myself. At my job I work with a lot of people who are homeless. I serve them food, chat with them, play games with them, and do my best to help them stay clothed, clean, and alive. I get to see the side of homelessness most people don’t. Most people, and even cities sometimes, consider them as an annoyance. Parks erect benches with armrests in the middle to keep people from sleeping on them. They are constantly harassed by the police, and looked down upon by most other people. They are assumed to be dirty, unethical, stupid, and dangerous. This is not always the case. I know people who are homeless by choice. It’s important to remember that they’re human.
The same is true of a person experiencing symptoms of their mental illness. Lolly hears voices. I also know and work with someone who experiences psychosis, hearing voices. It can be very disconcerting for most people to witness someone responding to stimuli they aren’t also experiencing. But it’s really not as scary or dangerous as most people think. The woman I know who hears voices basically treats them as imaginary friends. I see her working on arts and crafts, laughing, happy, having a good ol’ time. She’s not going to hurt anyone. She’s not any more frightening than a child with imaginary friends. The best phrase I’ve heard to describe this is simply that her reality is different from mine. It honestly doesn’t mean much more than that.
There are good ways and bad ways to present mental illness. It’s not as hard as most pop culture makes it seem (by doing it wrong). “Nothing about us, without us.” Shows need to work with mental health professionals and people with mental illness to create authentic and positive portrayals of the diagnoses they want to show. And, unlike shows like 13 Reasons Why they need to listen to those experts to avoid dangerous and life-threatening depictions of trauma and suicide. I was shocked when I learned in my research that the people making that show thought they were doing a good job at portraying mental illness. How arrogant do you have to be to think that you know better than experts, who are warning you against what you’ve made? Just as shocking was when I learned about all the positive feedback the show was getting, notably only from people who don’t understand anything about what depression and suicidal ideation are actually like. Taking a trauma-informed approach is fundamental to good representation. More shows should look to Orange is the New Black for examples of positive, humanizing representation. It is often through pop culture that people learn about identities that are different from their own. Content creators need to step up and work towards accurate and positive representation.
UPDATE: A few days after posting this a man in Peru committed suicide, leaving behind a series of recordings and a list of the people to whom they should be delivered, à la Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why. Netflix’s response to this is to add an extra warning at the beginning of the show.
To anyone out there who needs help, there are many resources available. If you’re feeling suicidal, please reach out. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day. 1-800-273-8255
If you’re feeling depressed and just need someone to talk to, there are many resources like 7cups which will pair you with a trained peer support to whom you can talk for free. There are other resources like the David Romprey Warmline if you just need someone to talk to. 1-800-698-2392
Brangham, William. Interview with Dr. Christina Conolly and Sonia Soraiya. PBS Newshour. May 2, 2017. Link.
National Association of School Psychologists. 2017. 13 Reasons Why Netflix series: Considerations for educators [handout]. Bethesda, MD: Author. Link.
lostallhope.org. Author unknown. Suicide Statistics. Link.
Brian Yorkey, creator. 13 Reasons Why. Netflix. 2017.
Jenji Kohan, creator. Orange is the New Black. Netflix. 2013.
“Right Place, Right Time”. How I Met Your Mother, season 4, episode 22. May 4, 2009.
Elizabeth Meriwether, creator. New Girl. Elizabeth Meriwether Pictures, 20th Century Fox. 2011.