Do No Harm: Depicting Honest Stories About Mental Health

With the controversial success of 13 Reasons Why and the release of a trailer for a new Netflix film To The Bone, I’ve been seeing a lot of conversation on social media. Some, taking what they have seen depicted in the trailer for To The Bone and also assuming the rest of the tone of the movie, have expressed disgust at the romanticization of ED. Others have praised having their story told in popular media. One thing is clear, people are demanding more representations of their experiences with mental illnesses and they are not going to settle for the stereotypical or stigmatized depictions of the past. 

But how do these stories get told in an honest way without causing harm to the viewers? How do we avoid romanticizing these conditions, showing the real, the ugly and the difficult symptoms and circumstances without causing the viewer trauma and giving them a guidebook for harming themselves?

There are ways, and directors, producers, showrunners, and actors have a duty to abide by it. I have no psychological training, just years of living with mental illness, and as a ravenous consumer of media and a mental health advocate. Here are my suggestions for responsible mental health story telling.

1. Trigger warnings

“Trigger” has been a hot button word as of late and surrounding it there are a lot of misconceptions and stigmatization. Trigger warnings are for those with PTSD, panic disorders, experiences with trauma, etc to warn them about content that could potentially cause a severely unpleasant response including panic attacks and flashbacks to trauma.  They are not just so people can avoid feeling “uncomfy” they are for people who have psychological conditions and can experience a great deal of harm when they are subjected to traumatic images without warning. Trigger warning and not for storytellers to slap on and then abdicate themselves of all responsibility for their content. They are the first step in ensuring that those that consume their stories don’t experience undue trauma. When viewers are properly warned about the nature of the content, they can then make a decision for themselves whether to view the program or not but they need that opportunity to brace themselves and be aware rather than unintentionally witnessing something traumatic.

2. No graphic depictions

This is something that was urged of the creators of 13 Reasons Why and yet completely ignored by them. There is no reason EVER to show someone dying by suicide. EVER. There really isn’t a reason to show someone self harming either. I know creators live for the drama but showing these acts are irresponsible. During times when I’ve been suicidal or self harming, I consumed any media that I could find that showed and spoke about such things, collecting the ideas to use on myself. There has already been a death inspired by 13RW. Though it takes a little more effort, there are ways for stories to include suicide and self harm without being overtly damaging. Degrassi did this perfectly with the death of Cam Saunders, never showing the dead body and never even mentioning the the manner in which he died. With moving dialogue, a thoroughly constructed plot leading up to his death, and a focus on the emotional impact after, the story was conveyed with the respect that it deserved. Leave the blood and gore for the horror movies and address suicide and self harm with a lack of graphic details.

3.Diverse stories

Both 13RW and To The Bone depict the stories of pretty young white girls. Mental illnesses affect all populations without discrimination, anyone is subject to have them but disadvantaged groups are more vulnerable. Though mental health problems can be caused by genetics, they are also influenced by oppression and social hardships. The main characters in these Netflix shows feed into stereotypes and romanticization. The stereotypical image of someone with an eating disorder is a young, thin, white woman despite it affecting men, POC, and those of all shapes and sizes. The pretty white woman is also frail and vulnerable, just waiting for a fumbling, kind heartened boy to swoop in and save her from all of her troubles.

Not only are diverse populations affected by mental illnesses, mental illnesses themselves are diverse. There are more mental illnesses than just depression and for every mental illness there are a wide variety of symptoms that manifest themselves differently in everyone. As more stories address mental illness, it is important that the same stories are not been told again and again as that does not represent the truly varied experience of mental health.

4.No romanticization

MENTAL ILLNESSES ARE NOT BEAUTIFULLY TRAGIC, THEY ARE PAINFUL AND HARD AND THEY SUCK. Teenagers can’t be told that their legacy is going to live on forever in the angst of some teenage boy or that dying will exact the most perfect revenge on those who have done them wrong. I have been that kid in high school who fantasized about how my death would finally make my classmates open their eyes and inflict them with guilt for the rest of their lives. It is a toxic thought but rationality isn’t the trademark of those who are suicidal. Stories cannot feed into that thought that dying will fix things. Stories cannot promote the falsehood that all it takes is love to cure someone. If that was the case we would not have a mental health epidemic and we could just buy everyone a puppy who would give them unconditional love and the problem would be solved. Mental illnesses are medical conditions that affect a person’s brain chemistry and cannot be cured by some average-looking white boy thinking that you’re pretty.



5.Leave them with hope

Storytellers love drama and tragedy but with stories about mental illness being difficult enough in the first place, it is important to end them with some glimmer of hope. Mental illnesses can be treated, there is therapy, medications, and self care that can reduce symptoms. There are resources out there that can help . No matter what you’re not alone, even though other people cannot simply “cure” you with your love, talking to others can help. Stories about mental illnesses are important to reduce stigma, and bring about awareness and representation. But even though we have been deprived of these stories for so long, it does not mean that we have to settle for depictions that are inaccurate and harmful. We should expect better from storytellers and they should be considering how to tell their stories honestly but without harm.


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