Let’s Talk: mental health and pop culture

LETSTALK

With Bell Let’s Talk taking place this week, we thought it would be a good idea for the Arts and Culture section to talk a little bit about the ways in which mental health is portrayed in all kinds of media — both good and bad. Portrayals of mental health are important for a huge number of reasons, but it’s just as important that those portrayals are healthy, positive and move discussions forward. Below are a few pieces of pop culture that deal with the topic and our take on how they represent mental illnesses.
(WARNING: there WILL be spoilers below)

Netflix Originals — 13 Reasons Why and Degrassi: Next Class

The incredibly inappropriate representation of mental health issues in the Netflix original 13 Reasons Why has been highlighted time and time again, but because of its popularity it’s an important example to look back on. 13 Reasons Why’s portrayal can be genuinely dangerous to any vulnerable viewers. The series revolves around the suicide of Hannah Baker, a character only seen through flashbacks which portray the misfortunes that lead to the end of her life. According to the creators of 13 Reasons Why, the show was made with the intention of starting a conversation around mental health struggles. Yet, the end result comes across as a revenge fantasy rather than a heartfelt exploration of mental illness. Hannah’s backstory does not even point to any signs of mental illness. In the end, it seems as though her suicide only served the purpose of harming those who wronged her, even some who did so in small, inconsequential ways. On top of this, the suicide itself is not portrayed with any tact, violating every recommendation of how not to depict suicide in media from the overall glorification of Hannah’s suicide to the graphic depiction of it.

At the very least, 13 Reasons Why had the right idea to bring the issue of suicide to the forefront of television targeted towards young adults. Around the same time as the initial release of the series, another teen-oriented Netflix show was attempting to do the same thing. After five years of building up her struggles with mental illness, Degrassi: Next Class saw Maya Matlin – arguably the show’s main character – attempt suicide. Next Class, unfortunately, got some things wrong by showing the grisly aftermath of Maya’s attempt along with her method and suicide note. However, the character’s post-traumatic stress disorder and depression both reared their heads many times throughout her run in the series, only showing improvement once Maya begins getting treatment following her suicide attempt. Next Class even made a note to show what to look for in case any viewers are worried that someone in their life may be contemplating suicide by having Maya leave a trail of warning signs that none of her friends clue into due to their own lack of awareness. While not flawless, Maya’s story is one of the better mental health awareness storylines in recent teen fiction.

Mac Miller — Swimming

In terms of music, there are many artists who use their medium as a form of release for their mental health struggles. In 2018, Mac Miller’s fifth album Swimming exemplified this, offering a voice to fans grappling with their own mental health issues. Miller was always unafraid to showcase deeply personal content in his lyrics and Swimming is one of the best example of this trait. Aside from exploring Miller’s own personal struggles, the album features themes of psychological healing and self-love – promises that anyone can get through these struggles. The sincerity dripping from the lyrics serve to let any listeners know they’re not alone in their problems and have the capability to recover from the issues plaguing them and grow as a person. Swimming’s journey towards self-acceptance is a hard listen, but an honest and important one.

Julien Baker — Sprained Ankle

Julien Baker’s 2016 debut Sprained Ankle was written and recorded at a time when Baker had been through a large number of personal crises, still struggling with issues related to anxiety and depression. She bares all of these troubles with unparalleled vulnerability on Sprained Ankle, but it comes across as more than just a cry of desperation. Baker has always taken great care to highlight the strand of hope that runs through her work. While the title track “Sprained Ankle” sounds like a defeat, it’s only temporary — a sprained ankle, after all, can always be recovered from. A runner can always get back on their feet. Even “Everybody Does,” written about Baker’s deep-seated fear that everyone eventually leaves her, is a place of joy for her now. When she sings it live (and is always joined by a quiet chorus from the audience) it reminds her that those thoughts are just thoughts and have no bearing on what her life is really like. No matter how hard your anxieties might try to convince you otherwise, you are loved and deserving of one.

John Green — Looking for Alaska

John Green’s young adult novels seem to have stuck around in the public consciousness to a much greater extent than those of his peers. The quality of those novels vary a great deal but despite how cheesy they can be, most of them are fine for what they are: feel-good novels trying to connect with young people that don’t have it all figured out yet. One of his books, however, sticks out like a sore thumb. Looking for Alaska is a misguided and ham-fisted approach to topics of suicide and depression that ultimately does more harm than good, especially for a young and impressionable audience. When I first read this book I hadn’t even heard of depression as a legitimate mental illness before. This was my first proper encounter with the topic in any serious manner and looking back, I realize it gave me the complete wrong impression. Alaska, the character who suffers from depression, isn’t so much the problem, though her actual condition is not explored in great depth. The story is told from Miles’ perspective, so all we see are his impressions of and infatuation with her. This is the problem, in reality: the way Miles talks about Alaska’s suicide is deeply inappropriate. His attempts to try and piece together a meaning as though it’s a clue in a puzzle he left for her to solve just romanticize suicide and make it something mysterious and glamorous. It’s to Green’s credit that, at the very least, he realizes that there isn’t any meaning to it, but even that sends the wrong message. All of this happens after Alaska dies, which excludes her from all of these conversations about her life. It’s not all bad. The conversation between Miles and The Colonel about loving an idealized version of Alaska instead of Alaska herself is a much-needed detail but it doesn’t really change anything about anyone’s perspective, or the tone of the novel. Depression isn’t a fun Easter egg hunt for other people to pick up the pieces. Alaska was not a labyrinth for Miles to try and solve, she was a person that needed the same love, care and support as the rest of us.

Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher — Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham’s directorial debut isn’t exactly about mental health issues. Eighth Grade is more concerned with the struggles of growing up in a world that doesn’t have an off-switch, where even alone in your room, your phone connects you to your friends (as well as people that aren’t your friends). I think the way this movie talks about these things is a good model for the way topics of mental health should be handled. Elsie Fisher’s Kayla is awkward around the people she’s trying to impress (both in person and online), deeply uncomfortable in situations she doesn’t feel like she’s ‘cool’ enough to be a part of and is stressed out by her overeager father (Josh Hamilton, the film’s emotional secret weapon). She doesn’t really know who she is or how to let people in, so she does what she thinks everyone else is doing. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, Kayla writes up a chart of all of the things she thinks she needs to improve about herself to make more friends. The film is very open about a lot of the things younger generations go through that older generations have a hard time relating to: how harmful the social cliques of middle school and high school can be; how oppressive it can be for a young person to be bombarded all day by the glitz and glam of rich Instagram celebrities, or how difficult it can be to separate the things you want from the things the cool kids make you think you need. Kayla’s struggle to figure these things out for herself can be heartbreaking to watch, but by the end of the film, she’s learned to be comfortable with who she is and wear her heart on her sleeve. Bo Burnham has crafted a beautiful story about how difficult it can be to see through all the toxic, unhelpful garbage life throws at you to find the things that are important to you. The honesty and empathy with which he tells it are exactly the sort of thing that people should be embracing when they approach topics of mental illness.

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