What It Means to Romanticize Mental Illness
Over the last half-century, the push to destigmatize mental illness has led to increasing coverage about mental health across many outlets. Today it is possible to find online articles, reference tools, podcasts, televisions shows, and even documentaries about the evolving face of mental health. Yet, with the good also comes the bad.
For decades, horror movies, romance stories, books, television shows, and more have sensationalized and even romanticized mental illness. In some instances, popular television has overshadowed the severity of symptoms and challenges of struggling with mental health. Many modern releases lead to the misconception that mental illness is beautiful or even desirable. It also impacts the desire of those struggling with mental illness to seek and get the help they need to feel well again.
What Does it Mean to Romanticize Something?
When we romanticize things, we think or talk about them in a way that is is either inaccurate or not realistic. Dictionaries explain romanticizing as “believing something is better, more interesting or more exciting than it really is.” Another way to understand romanticizing is to look at other words that mean the same (or similar) thing: glorify, glamourize, idealize, worship, etc. Either way, glamorizing something applies far more pleasure or appeal to that particular “thing” that it likely should have. Such is the case for mental illness.
This is not to say that mental health and mental illness do not deserve acknowledgment. It merely means that glamorizing mental illness by making a mental health diagnosis desirable, fascinating, or attractive can lead to a host of potentially dangerous problems for the individual struggling with symptoms and for their loved ones. Sadly, modern media has not benefitted the mentally ill with contemporary representations of mental illness and recovery.
Mental Health on Television
In recent years, conversations surrounding mental health have become far more frequent in the media. For better or worse, books, social media, news networks, television documentaries, and movies have chosen to bring the subject of mental illness to the forefront of discussion. While there are positives to this, including a greater understanding of mental illness and a progressive reduction in the stigma that those with a mental health condition face when seeking help, there are negatives as well. Unfortunately, many of today’s depictions of mental health misrepresent and even sensationalize what it means to have a mental illness.
Horror Movies and Mental Illness
Television shows and movies have long since struggled to represent mental illness accurately. Countless horror movies involve one common denominator: a history of mental illness that spurs murder, stalking, and terror. Psycho, the Halloween Series, Friday the 13th, etc., all begin in some way with asylum or mental health challenges. Historically, the horror movie genre consists of films filled with scary people presented as or described as mentally ill. Long-running franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Scream only highlight audiences’ tragic fascination with mentally ill or unstable characters or the underlying romantic love story that feeds the plot. These portrayals are fascinating, intriguing even, but a dangerous viewpoint on what it means to have bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
For decades, Hollywood has emphasized the misguided connection between mental illness and violence with a slightly romantic spin. As movies moved on from monsters and supernatural villains, Hollywood introduced us to “real” people as villains. Among them, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver took the viewer along on the mentally ill killer’s journey from living with early trauma to violently unstable. Other movies based on the “slasher” ideal soon followed. With each, the common element was a mentally ill person behind a mask. Jason Voorhees, Mike Myers, etc., all became a staple of televised mental health and horror combined.
Beyond Horror Movies
A romanticized and misguided representation of mental illness does not end with the horror genre. Even today’s releases on Netflix and even Disney call into question how mental health is depicted to audiences of all ages. For example, Golden Globe-nominated The Silver Linings Playbook focuses on the mental health struggles of the main character. While the movie does an excellent job of not shying away from the challenges families experience with a loved one having a mental health condition, it all goes sideways when the storyline presents the concept of falling in love as a way to cure mental illness. Sadly, while this is a great way to pull audiences in, it is an inaccuracy that could have harmful outcomes. Falling in love cannot “cure” bipolar disorder. Still, an intimate and loving relationship may help someone with bipolar disorder acknowledge their symptoms and decide to seek help at a program like The Meadowglade.
Whether on the big screen or on television, Hollywood often portrays mental illness in ways that either glorify or stigmatize the root causes of the condition and the symptoms someone with a mental illness experiences. Some popular television series focus most of (if not all of) their episodes for a season on mental illness or mental health challenges. Popular television series like This is Us, Glee, and American Horror Story are prime examples. Television series are not the only source of mental health misrepresentation, stigmatization, or glorification. Hollywood has decades of problematic history surrounding mental illness’s challenges and struggles. Popular titles such as Black Swan, Sixteen Candles, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Virgin Suicides, and elements of The Twilight Series (Yes, Bella was a depressed teen), 13 Reasons Why, A Star is Born, etc. are only a few of a very long (and growing) list.
Romanticizing Mental Illness Recovery
Another romanticized spin placed on mental illness surrounds mental health recovery. First, it is vital to mention that many mental health conditions are not “curable,” meaning the possibility of symptom relapse always remains. Additionally, symptoms of most mental health conditions will not resolve on their own or without help from a treatment program like The Meadowglade. However, with treatment and support, remission or lasting recovery are well within reach of anyone committed to overcoming their symptoms.
An excellent example of “romanticized mental illness recovery” is the movie Legally Blonde. The typically bubbly and quite beautiful main character, Elle Woods, suffers a bad breakup and is immediately enveloped in a deep depression. She spends a day in bed, binge eating and crying, after which she decides to apply to Harvard Law School. For Elle, this decision helps her instantly snap out of her depression. Suddenly, Elle is happier than she has ever been. As wonderful as this may be on paper, anyone struggling with depression understands depression does not simply go away. Real-life depression often requires comprehensive, evidence-based therapy to help you learn how to manage symptoms and triggers in a healthy, productive way. Real-life depression will not simply resolve itself, but it “feels better” to see it happen that way on the big screen.
Mental Illness on Social Media and in the News
Social media and news outlets might (perhaps) be the most effective and ineffective way people learn about mental health. Mainstream media frequently misrepresents or carelessly covers mental illness. Sadly, news outlets still sensationalize mental illness stories, especially those linked to celebrities. Ernest Hemingway, Kate Spade, Robin Williams, Kurt Cobain, Alexander McQueen, Anthony Bourdain, Chester Bennington-all celebrities who took their own lives after long, exhausting battles with mental illness. Amanda Bynes, Brittany Spears, Demi Lovato, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mariah Carey, Carrie Fisher, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe-all celebrities who struggled (very publicly) with mental health, yet, their struggles and journey to recovery became mainstream media fodder. So much so that “ordinary people” became so invested in these celebrities’ lives that it led to personal mental health struggles, challenges, or loss of life.
Social media has become a dangerous place for romanticizing mental illness. While many social media outlets provide a place for people to connect with peers or loved ones, it also provides an (often unfiltered) outlet to talk about mental health and mental illness. While it can be helpful for people (especially teens) to know that they are not alone and to foster relationships with others who share similar challenges, it also opens the door to the view that mental illness is something to “want” or “strive for.” It is not hard to look through social media and find images romanticizing mental illness and self-harm.
Why it Matters
Romanticizing mental illness can be dangerous. Images of self-harm and “the beauty of mental illness” may encourage others (teens and adults alike) to view mental illness as something of tragic beauty. It may also cause those who need help to avoid seeking treatment because they see their mental health as “part of who they are,” and therefore, they do not need or want to change. Perhaps the worst or most dangerous outcome of romanticizing mental illness is the increased risk of suicide. Studies show that stories about mental health-related suicide lead to increased suicide rates. For example, the release of the widely criticized and debated Netflix show 13 Reasons Why saw an increase in internet searches related to suicide.
It is essential to continue progressing towards a world where mental illness is without harmful or dangerous stigma. Today, conversations and education around mental health and mental health care help bring this goal closer to reality. However, it is equally as essential to work towards this goal in a way that does not increase problems for people who struggle with mental health conditions. It is critical for news outlets, television studios, and others to consider the content of their productions. People should understand that mental illness is not a goal, but a treatable condition and help is widely available to learn how to manage your symptoms effectively and safely. If you would like to learn more about how The Meadowglade can help, contact us for more information about our programs.