Among the media’s attempts to open the discussion of mental health, there’s another, arguably more dangerous, movement growing in tandem.
Love as a treatment for mental health goes way, way back, to Oscar winners like “Silence of the Lambs” and cult classics like “Wristcutters: A Love Story.” Diseases have been Hollywood’s “IT” girl of themes for a while now, but as someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), my mental health — and that of others — isn’t a plot line or object of interest. It can be an emotional experience, yes, but it’s also an incredibly personal journey that doesn’t need a savior.
In the controversial show “13 Reasons Why,” Clay Jensen is the ninth recipient of some tell-all tapes recorded by his classmate Hannah, who committed suicide. After he listens to them, he says, “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her.” The same idea, that love is a treatment, is also seen in “Wristcutters, A Love Story.” It’s a cult classic that uses suicide as a trope, ignores the larger context of mental health, and entertains the idea that someone can come back from the dead to fix their mistakes.
An inaccurate portrayal for everyone
“These types of media often show a very narrow view of what living with mental illness is really like,” explains Robert Duff, PhD, psychologist, and author of “F**k Anxiety.” This points to another potentially damaging scene from “13 Reasons Why,” where Hannah’s counselor tells her to “move on” from her rape. Not only is this unhelpful, it doesn’t accurately portray the process of finding a helpful therapist. Therapy and therapists aren’t a one-size-fits-all.
“You rarely see the process of recovery over time, including relapses. You rarely see anything resembling the true effects of psychiatric medication. You rarely see the spillover effects on family and relationships, and rarely get to hear the internal dialogue of the person suffering,” said Duff. “For these shows that present mental illness poorly, it’s basically an interesting quirk of the character.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that only 41 percent of adults and 50.6 percent of children with a mental health condition received mental health services in the last year. Many people who go untreated may be vulnerable to the depictions of mental health shown in the media.
Producer Selena Gomez called the show "beautifully tragic, complicated yet suspenseful ... " after it began to receive backlash for its lack of discussion about mental illness and other at-risk behaviors. Over social media, teens have shown their love for the show in many forms, including promposals, where teens use 13 tapes to ask one another to prom. And the recipients all seem to think this is actually romantic, forgetting that the tapes symbolize reasons for suicide. Those “13 reasons why you should go to prom” or “why I love you” are a glaring examples of how romance sweeps aside the bigger problem.
How the media can help
This isn’t to say that everything we see in the media is harmful. We’ve seen how it can normalize disorders and open up productive discussion between families about mental health, treatments, and more.
“There was a scene in the recent movie ‘Finding Dory,’ where Dory essentially has a panic attack. They don’t label it as that, but anyone who has had a panic attack knew exactly what was going on,” says Duff. He goes on to explain, “Scenes like [the one in “Finding Dory”] are amazing because they’re accurate and convey a sort of artistic empathy to anyone who is watching that may be able to relate. They also serve as a respectful jumping off point for a child to ask, ‘What’s wrong with Dory? Why is she acting like that?’”
It’s essential to have these conversations. According to The Jason Foundation, each day there is an average of over 5,240 suicide attempts by youth. The foundation also notes that 4 out of 5 of those teens gave clear warning signs.
Being able to distinguish between a moment of sadness and a mood disorder can be difficult for anyone, let alone teens. So educating yourself and loved ones is vital.
Finding the right treatment
It took me years of therapy and panic attacks — which were such frightening experiences that I wound up in urgent care multiple times — to finally see a psychiatrist and begin taking medication. During my panic attacks, my then-boyfriend often became frustrated because I wouldn’t let him touch me. As someone who’s already experiencing sensory overload, even the slightest bush of a fingertip would send me even more over the edge. That frustrated him as well, because I didn’t look ill, so how could I be sure something was wrong?
“Unfortunately, many people still have the misguided view that because it’s in your head, it’s somehow less significant than a medical condition or physical illness or injury, and therefore the person suffering should just ‘tough it out’ or pull themselves out of it on their own,” explains Dr. Simon Rego, PsyD, chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “This could not be farther from the truth. Psychological disorders, such as anxiety disorders, are as disabling as medical conditions — and in fact, at times can be even more disabling.”
As someone who personally suffers from GAD and takes medication for it, watching 15 minutes of someone having a panic attack doesn’t make good entertainment. Seeing someone who no longer has panic attacks just because they have a “loving” relationship isn’t any better.
While mental health does affect the loved ones of those involved, no amount of love can cure a disorder. Believing it’s all really that simple can actually be dangerous and potentially mislead people who desperately need treatment. Instead of championing their own health, they seek relationships or the approval of others, instead.
As we normalize the discussion of mental health, we must also make sure we’re not spreading misinformation or romanticized ideals. Instead, the most loving thing someone can do for themselves is to get help.
Ashley Lauretta is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. She is assistant editor for LAVA Magazine and contributing editor for Women's Running. Additionally, her byline appears in The Atlantic, ELLE, Men's Journal, espnW, GOOD Sports and more. Find her online at ashleylauretta.com and on Twitter at @ashley_lauretta.