Mental Health Education: How Responsible is Television?

Mental Health Education: How Responsible is Television?

Mental health in young people and its representation within the media and entertainment industry has long been a source of controversy. 

After the second season of 13 Reasons Why – a popular Netflix show aimed at a younger demographic, concerning issues such as sexual assault, drug abuse, and suicide – aired this May, this controversy is at the forefront of the public mind. The first season of the show received extensive backlash over its ‘romanticising’ and ‘idealising’ of suicide, and its inclusion of extremely triggering scenes. HuffPost have gone so far as to name the teenage drama a ‘scapegoat for an entire industry that, experts say, could do better in its depictions of mental illness.’ 

So, this time around, producers released an accompanying documentary entitled Behind the Reasons on Netflix, alongside season two, and made a valiant effort to warn viewers of potentially upsetting scenes – with cast members recording announcements and trigger warnings at the beginning of many episodes. However, critics such as those from BBC news have suggested that this is simply not enough, with the show receiving extra criticism for airing during exam season. One other major criticism of both seasons was that the depiction of protagonist Hannah Baker’s decline into mental illness was neither accurate nor believable. 

The same has been said for another popular Netflix series, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. This show follows protagonist Rebecca Bunch on her journey to West Covina, California, in pursuit of happiness (and an ex-boyfriend whom she believes will bring said happiness.) The show is a musical comedy that tackles important topics such as alcoholism, mental illness, and obsession in a relatively light-hearted manner, alongside frequent hard-hitting moments. For instance, in season three when she is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Whilst some critics, such as Bustle, have claimed that the producers ‘nailed the reality of living with a mental illness’, others, such as Electric Literature, state that the show does ‘nothing that might make viewers consider the difficulties and realities of living with mental illness’ and that ‘we need to ask more from our television shows.’ 

On the one hand, with Netflix more popular than ever before, it’s easy to see that television has at least a partial responsibility in representing an accurate portrayal of mental illness, or at least in attempting to challenge the harmful stereotypes that surround the subject of mental health. 

However, is it really the responsibility of fictional television programmes to educate young people? No. Whilst television can provide relatable characters for viewers who are struggling, generate awareness of less well-known illnesses, and encourage people to reach out for help, the foundation of mental health knowledge and education for young people should be coming from schools. 

The Independent reported in July this year that the British government has proposed that mental health education become a ‘mandatory part of the curriculum for all primary and secondary schools from autumn 2020.’ This will be an extremely welcome change to the current welfare education available in schools, with the BBC reporting that over a third of teachers they questioned had not received ‘any training on how to deal with pupils’ mental health issues.’ And the majority of schools had very limited mental health awareness sessions taking place in PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) lessons – lessons which are not mandatory.

Therefore, with The Guardian stating that ‘75% of mental illnesses start before a child reaches their 18th birthday,’ and so little education on the topic within schools, it sadly does not come as a shock that young people are looking elsewhere for guidance, and unfortunately finding shows that may misrepresent or dramatise mental health.

 For 13 Reasons Why the inclusion of trigger warnings is an extremely positive step forward from season one, with producers taking more responsibility for their impact on viewers. However, the fact remains that the show is, and always will be, a show about suicide. This means it will never be easy viewing for a lot of people, and it’s not supposed to be. Nor is it intended as a behavioural template for those struggling in a similar way to Hannah Baker. Therefore, it is clear that we cannot rely on fictional television to educate or guide us through mental health issues, and until 2020, lessons on these issues will not be mandatory. 

So, until then, here are some educational, insightful and hopefully helpful documentaries, charities, and websites to learn from:

1.  The Shaw Mind Foundation, 2. Stephen Fry's Documentary: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, 3. National Eating Disorders, 4. Mind, 5. Bipolar UK, 6. Intrusive Thoughts, 7. My Mind and Me
 

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