Celebrating Mental Illness

There is a new trend going on in Media Land, and it is called Mental Illness. Nowadays, in more and more movies and series our protagonists are haunted and troubled by one or another psychological disorder. Be it depression, autism, AD(H)D, or – a very popular one – social anxiety. Another common feature of our heroes is that they are often very, very smart (a fetish our whole society seems to share), and likely start their introduction dialogue with something along the lines of: “I wish I was normal, but I am not.”

The troublesome part is that as soon as their introduction round is done, these characters proceed with their lives and live it as ‘normal’ human beings, except for having a few quirks that can be attributed to their mental illness, apparently. Other than these few quirks, the actual symptoms of the particular disorder are never (or barely) shown.

Furthermore,  from the enormous list of mental disorders, only a few are represented in the popular series and movies that we watch. Have you ever seen a schizophrenic protagonist? Where are our heroes with classic autism? Tourette Syndrome? Kleptomania? Maybe you can name some people, but these are probably outnumbered compared to most characters. This is because these disorders are ‘not attractive’ for the viewer to see in the main character, and therefore ‘not popular’ for the protagonist to have. They are fine for side characters or antagonists, of course. But we viewers should be able to identify with the main character and most of all, sympathize with them. Do you see the problem here?

Over the last couple of years, the amount of people who suffer from one or another mental illnesses have skyrocketed in our Western society. Everywhere around us we hear of burn-outs at work, taking various medication to help us sleep or focus, we go to the therapist to treat out depressive episodes and anxieties, and more often than not do we hear a dear friend of us sigh about how sad, tired and stressed they are.

We as a collective are moving up in the pyramid of Maslov – we satisfied our basic needs of food, shelter, affection and general wealth. However in the process we ran into other walls, which have to do with our self-esteem and self-actualization. Since we do not have to worry about our basic needs anymore, we can instead worry about our individual psychological issues. This might be where the phenomenon of increased cases of mental illness sprouted from. Since more people suffer from these psychological disorders, more feel the need to be able to identify with others, if not indirectly.

Even though mental illness has finally been recognized as a phenomenon that is real and happening, people who do not suffer from it fail to see it as a serious threat that cripples us, and instead view it as something ‘quirky’ or ‘interesting’. This is because the media is not always doing a good job at representing mental disorders.

Take Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory and Abed Nadir from Community, both characterized as characters with Asperger’s Syndrome, playing in comedy series (an interesting fact on the side: these characters are not ‘officially diagnosed’ by their creators – I personally do believe Abed is rather accurate though.). In Iron Man III, the ‘genius billionaire playboy philantrophist’ Tony Stark experiences some severe anxiety  attacks, Carrie Mathison suffers from Bipolar disorder while the soldier Nicholas Brody suffers from PTSD in Homeland, and in the relatively new series Mr. Robot the main character Elliot seems to suffer from social anxiety and depression. This is only a tiny amount of the incredible overload of characters with mental illnesses in popular media nowadays.

When having a closer look at these series and movies, we observe various levels in which our main characters provide comic relief, offer more suspense or make us sympathize with them. Although this seems to be mostly done through their mental disorders.

Do not get me wrong. As I said, mental illness is ‘real and happening’, which means it should most definitely be included in the series and movies we watch. Since this phenomenon is only increasing, it is important that it has a solid representation in the media. I do, however, believe there is a fine line between representing these mental disorders, and profiting from them. Sitcom-wise, it is a case of “laughing with them, or laughing at them”, which might be the situation with Sheldon Cooper, for example. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is a problem.

Since there is such a one-sided representation of mental illness in the media nowadays, it is not an overstatement to say that these disorders are romanticized, if not sensationalized. Resulting from this, is a growing misinterpretation among people who are not familiar with mental illness. These people will only be made aware of the various disorders through what they see from it in the media – and depending on how this is done, it shapes how our society views mental illness. If the media keeps celebrating psychological disorders like it does, this might result in people who believe that mental illness is nor a real illness, because after all, characters in movies and series seem to do fine even though they are ‘ill’.

I believe it is a good development that the media mirrors what is happening in our society, yet it seems that in this particular case the mirror is rather distorted. Not only should characters with various traits be represented, the media would do well to do their research before presenting these characters to the public, and present them accurately. Only then can we progress to a more and better understanding of mental illness.


(Header image courtesy of pogdesign.co.uk)


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