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Mental Health in Literature and the Media

With self-care becoming more prominent in society, many readers have taken an interest in how to take care of themselves and their loved ones mentally and emotionally. If you go to your local bookstore, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books detailing different psychological techniques that guarantee you happiness. Memoirs detailing harrowing experiences of abuse, substance misuse, and subsequent survivals have filled the shelves with resilience and encouragement. I myself have enjoyed such works, and have used these books to inform me of my own practice.

This contrasts with how individuals who have mental illnesses are portrayed in television shows. Take, for example, Thirteen Reasons Why. The story talks about a teenage girl named Hannah Baker who decides to take her own life. She leaves 13 tapes for every individual who had a hand in her death. In the book, the protagonist listens to these tapes one night, and despite his grief, he pushes through it. The TV series, on the other hand, drags out listening to these tapes as a way to prolong the protagonist’s torture (and our enjoyment). When seasons 2 and 3 came out on Netflix, Hannah Baker was no longer at the focal point. The events that led to her suicide were suddenly sidelined in favor of more drama, and her story was forgotten to make room for retaliation. Many audience members have criticized the book’s handling of depression as a whole, as well as the crude way it handled other important issues, such as bullying and sexual assault. 

There are times, however, when the media fully shows the harrowing struggles an individual with mental illness may go through. This was seen with A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar, which tells the story of a mathematical genius and Nobel Prize winner who was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although the book illustrates the symptoms quite well, such as paranoia and delusions of grandeur, the movie takes the book and makes it frighteningly relatable. It’s as if we are in Nash’s life with him, as he accidentally fools us into believing his perceptions, trying to give us every reason to support him even though we know he’s spiraling into madness. 

But the media limits us on how much we can portray the individual in a way that books do not. While there are times when the screen is able to accurately depict the raw emotions and experiences that accompany having a mental illness, at the end of the day it’s the author’s imagination that helps us understand what it is really like for the readers involved. More importantly, if a reader does have a mental illness, they are more likely to relate to a character in a book, a character they were able to build up, understand, and picture visually, rather than an actor who, while they may do a good job, is subject to the whims of the studio and their audiences. Now, the literary world is not completely sinless. After all, works like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte can perpetuate the stereotype that individuals living with mental illness are violent. This unfortunately coincides with the media’s portrayals of those living with such struggles as aggressive, unhinged, and, at worst, mass shooters. Despite this, I would argue that writers have more power to change the narrative surrounding mental illness. After all, books can offer a variety of different perspectives. They can be more authentic than the voices found in the media.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Robin Goodfellow