Appropriation of Mental Illness in Netflix Originals
Mental illness has long been a clandestine topic; a quietly misunderstood societal issue. Stigma intimately shrouds mental health, cloaking eating disorders, anxiety, and depression (amongst many other disorders), with unease such that, frequently, victims themselves do not even understand their illnesses and are afraid to seek help. For seeking help means admission of a perceived ‘defect’ and, therefore, an additional slew of problems: potential peer banishment, judgement, the ‘mental illness’ label, confused identity, etc. It is therefore so wholly concerning to observe cable and network television shows capitalizing upon those problems, selfishly snagging ‘intrigue of the unknown’ (the ‘unknown’ in this case being mental health) to gather heightened reviews. Though social media, advertising, and Hollywood certainly stoke America’s insecurities, this blog will specifically analyze two recent Netflix projects: To the Bone and 13 Reasons Why.
Most recent to face criticism is the soon to be released series To the Bone, a drama featuring main character Ellen’s eating disorder recovery journey despite several previous and failed rehabilitation attempts. The series is promoted as an ‘advocacy and awareness’ venture, an artistic representation of anorexia’s dangers and educational instrument. However, health professionals and regular viewers alike are vehemently critiquing this idealistic intention. Dasha Nicholls, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty, maintained “[To the Bone] is potentially risky to two groups of people, including those who have not yet developed an eating disorder. There is always a risk of glamorizing it [anorexia] and also slightly trivializing it” (Marsh, 2017).
Glamorization and downplay are valid concerns, as with most prime-time entertainment, To the Bone features several A-list celebrities. Lily Collins, one such celebrity, embraced her role as Ellen following a personal anorexia battle and plausibly joined To the Bone with good intentions. However, her popularity within preteen and teenage demographics has also recently catapulted her to ‘style icon status’ and a subsequent level of idolatry. There is bubbling concern that vulnerable youth, viewing their favorite actress swathed in To the Bone’s emotionally charged subject matter, might not untangle, say, fictional Ellen from Collins herself. Additionally, professionals fear To the Bone’s unapologetically graphic images and dialogue might trigger both individuals still battling EDs and, mentioned by Nicholls, those not yet suffering. These same professionals recommend the series feature a warning or ‘spoiler alert,’ a caution from psychologically damaging material therein (Marsh).
The second Netflix show to raise professional hackles, released earlier this year despite alleged professional warnings against said release, is the adaptation of YA novel 13 Reasons Why. 13 Reasons Why depicts the aftermath of high schooler Hannah’s suicide and revelation of her ‘reasons why’ via tapes left in her wake. The series’ central topic is suicide and, allegedly, clinical depression. However, professionals have spoken out against the show’s strong ‘revenge’ theme; i.e. suicide as a form of vengeance. Rather than addressing clinical depression, a very real and very serious medical illness, 13 Reasons Why swipes responsibility from Hannah and places it solely on the shoulders of her classmates, health counselors, family, and acquaintances. Furthermore, health care professionals and Hannah’s ‘support system’ are deemed completely ineffectual throughout Hannah’s story; viewers also suffering from depression might take this as further proof of their ‘aloneness’ and lack of options (Offner, 2017). The National Association of School Psychologists has boldly stated it does not recommend vulnerable youth watch 13 Reasons Why, as the “powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters…” (NASP, 2017).
Altogether, both To the Bone and 13 Reasons Why claim to highlight mental illness and untangle mystery shrouding such disorders as anorexia and depression. Unfortunately, each fall far short of this intended purpose and these Netflix originals instead appear to capitalize upon that same mystery. ‘Mental illness as drama,’ ‘mental illness as entertainment,’ ‘mental illness for shock value’ appear as main prerogatives here and, whether intentionally or not, the sagas swallow and distort real (and painful struggles) faced by victims while also trivializing said struggles (for an accurate representation of anorexia or suicide does not equate pleasant television). However, by analyzing these shows’ shortcomings, we might achieve a closer understanding of mental illness; in effect we must ask: what was illustrated incorrectly? What options could have been available to Ellen and Hannah? What does effective therapy look like? Mental illness needs demystification and a desire to provide onscreen depiction is admirable, especially considering 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness in any given year (NAMI, 2017). However, this demystification must be appropriate and we must honor victims in onscreen representation while simultaneously educating non-victims.
Education on mental illness is much needed and our hope at TOPPS is to continue to educate, support, and treat those in need. If you or a loved one are suffering from depression, an eating disorder, or any other debilitating mental illness, know that help is available! There are so, so many different and available help outlets; know, above all, you are not alone.
NAMI. (2017). Mental Health By The Numbers. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved on 13 July, 2017, from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers.
National Association of School Psychologists. (2017). 12 Reasons Why Netflix Series: considerations for educators [handout]. Bethesda, MD. Retrieved on July 11, 2017, from https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources/school-safety-and-crisis/preventing-youth-suicide/13-reasons-why-netflix-series-considerations-for-educators.
Marsh, Sarah. (June 26, 2017). Mental health experts criticize new Netflix film about anorexic girl. The Guardian. Retrieved on April 11, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/mar/31/13-reasons-why-review-sex-drugs-and-mixtapes-in-netflix-high-school-horror-show.
Offner, Deborah. (May 28, 2017). “13 Reasons Why:” Psychological Costs for Vulnerable Kids. Psychology Today. Retrieved on April 11, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/progress-report/201705/13-reasons-why-psychological-costs-vulnerable-kids-0.