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13 Reasons Why: Examining media representations of mental illness

Academic Discipline: Media studies
Course Name: Media Theory
Assignment Subject: 13 Reasons Why: Examining media representations of mental illness
Academic Level: Undergraduate
Referencing Style: APA
Word Count: 1,592

Images presented by the media, particularly on television and in film, are incredibly important to the ways in which society comes to understand the world around them. According to Ott and Mack (2014), “the vast majority of what we know comes to us… symbolically. These are the things we know through someone or something such as… film, television, or the internet” (1). In acknowledging that the vast majority of the things we know as humans in society are learned through mediated sources, it makes sense then to be very mindful of the images we consume and the ways in which they can affect the worldviews of audiences.

In this paper, I am interested in the representation of mental illness in the media. More specifically, I have a particular interest in the representation of people in depressive states, and representations of suicide. Though society has become increasingly more open when it comes to discussing mental illnesses and understanding that mental health is as important as physical health, the media continues to lag behind with problematic representations which could convey that people suffering from severe mental illnesses are inherently violent, or that they cannot be trusted to be on their own. While some versions of these representations may be true some of the time in particular cases, those who learn about mental illness through the mediation of television or film should be able to see accurate representations of people of all walks of life; those struggling with a mental illness should be able to see themselves properly represented, and their families and loved ones should be able to see images of people in similar situations who are not being looked down on from the start.

First, I will briefly discuss the importance of proper representation, before discussing the potential effects of negative representations – both on those who suffer from mental illnesses themselves, and on those who do not. To ground this discussion, I will be examining the Netflix TV series 13 Reasons Why in detail. Released in 2017, the book-turned-show was the centre of some controversy surrounding its portrayal of a high school student who eventually takes her own life. I will look at both sides of this controversy, and weigh in on where I believe this representation stands from an academic critical media perspective. Finally, I will discuss the potential effects that 13 Reasons Why could potentially have on its audiences, and will provide grounds for a discussion on the future of the show, which has already been granted a second season for audiences to consume. In doing so, I hope to provide a space within which to critically examine the media we consume every day, and to reinforce the importance to be mindful of not only the media images that are viewed, but also of the experiences of those around us every day.

Research suggests that seeing oneself as visible in consumable media is important for self-worth and self-acceptance, or that feeling as though you are properly represented in the media has the ability to make you feel as though you are a valued and important part of society. It is difficult to define what exactly would make a positive or a negative representation, particularly of those suffering from a mental illness. Thinking specifically about depression, there are a myriad of ways that it may present itself, that it may affect a patient, and that it may be dealt with by the patient and their family – do they have a supportive network? Are they reliant on medication, or do they (in collaboration with their doctor) have a naturopathic method for aiding their mental wellness? Has their depression caused suicidal tendencies and thoughts? The answers to these questions can vary greatly from patient to patient, and because of this, what may be considered an accurate representation for one person may be entirely inaccurate for another person with the same illness.

For this paper, I suggest that a positive representation is one which uses correct terminology, allows for the experience of the patient to be prioritized and gives voice to a person who is suffering from an illness to share their own experience rather than allowing them to be spoken for, as though they do not have the capacity to be their own advocate. A negative representation then, would be one which uses harmful language. This includes words like “crazy”, “mad”, “nuts”, etc., which have perpetrated our cultural discourse and become connotative for those who are out of their own control and shouldn’t be trusted. When speaking of the mentally ill, they also often bring to mind images of violence or those with dangerous behavioural patterns. This is, of course, also thanks to media representations, and this language can vastly impact the way an audience connects to a character. Negative representations would also allow the person with the mental illness to be constantly spoken for, would present them as harmful to those around them, and as though they have no control over their own minds and ways through the illness.

Negative representations of mental illness can be particularly harmful for those who themselves are struggling with a mental illness – in this case, depression. To see oneself represented in a light that is not true to their own experience and instead deems them to be lesser than the rest of society, looked down upon for something that isn’t their fault, or makes them inherently violent or dangerous to themselves or those around them, even when this is not the case. “Media images have profound implications for people who have a mental illness, not only in terms of their own self-image, help-seeking behaviours and recovery, but also both for the level of fear and hostility they experience when they interact with members of the general public and encounter community intolerance, and for the lack of supportive policies and programmes” (Stuart 2006, 103-104). In other words, these negative images in the media not only cause those struggling with a mental illness to see themselves represented negatively, but they also provide an understanding for how other people will learn to view them, thanks to the media’s portrayal of them. People will use “different reading processes according to varying levels of familiarity with a particular narrative topic, with those more familiar with a topic responding differently than those less familiar” (Caputo and Rounder 2011, 602). This means that those who have an understanding of the realities of depression and are familiar with the illness, either through their own experience or the experience of a loved one, will not take a negative portrayal of depression in the media as being the truth, but someone who does not know the realities of depression may see an inaccurate or harmful representation and assume that it is the way that everyone with depression will behave, or how they deserve to be treated by society.

Thirteen Reasons Why, a novel by Jay Asher, was turned into a Netflix TV series in early 2017. The show tells the story of Hannah Baker and the things she experienced with and by her peers that made her high school experience less than pleasant. Hannah takes her own life, and she leaves behind 13 cassette tapes and a list of people she wants to hear them – each one tells the story of another person or incident she encountered in her short life, and the things they did that led her to make the decision to end her life. The show sees Hannah realizing her friends are struggling with drug and alcohol use, being cut off by people she thought were her friends, being raped by a popular boy at school, and finally not being able to allow herself to love the boy that she’s had a crush on when the opportunity presents itself. Eventually, viewers see the moment when Hannah takes her life – in a bathtub with a razor, blood-red water spilling over the tub when her mother finds her lifeless body.

While the show does well to present a girl who, though eventually suicidal, was never acting “crazy” or being stereotypically represented as depressed, and there is also attention paid to Hannah’s family and loved ones as they cope with her death and struggle to find answers, there are problems with the show’s presentation as well. First, by allowing Hannah’s character to present tapes to her peers with reasons for her suicide, and to have each of those reasons be a person or something a person did, the character is using suicide as a method of revenge and payback to her classmates and friends. To a young audience then, and particularly a young audience who may be struggling with depression (and in some cases not even know it), suicide may seem like a viable option to end one’s life and get back at the people who they felt made it bad. Secondly, her death in the bathtub is cause for concern. In the book, Hannah dies after taking a handful of pills rather than screaming through the end of her life as she slit her wrists. This tells the audience that the show creators wanted her death to be more cinematic, more visually jarring, more dramatic. Her suicide is glamorized to make good TV and to get back at those around her. She had a cinematically “beautiful” end to her life, even through an ugly act, and it makes her death seem as though it is something to be proud of, potentially giving young audiences permission and encouragement (though subconsciously rather than outright) to do the same.

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Caputo, N. M., & Rouner, D. (2011). Narrative Processing of Entertainment Media and Mental Illness Stigma. Health Communication, 26(7), 595-604. doi:10.1080/10410236.2011.560787

Ott, B. L., & Mack, R. L. (2014). Critical media studies: an introduction. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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