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Mental Illnesses in TV Series: Helpful or Harmful?

Mental health has been a hot topic in recent news: it started off with the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”, a show that features Hannah, a student who commits suicides and leaves behind a series of tapes that explain why she decided to do so. Then came “To the Bone”, a film about an anorexic girl who struggles to stop losing weight.

You might be feeling some shifts in your expectations, plans, and experiences already. Instead of getting ready to head to campus and shopping at Bed Bath & Beyond for room organizers, you might be stuck waiting to hear if your school is opening for in-person instruction or remaining entirely online. Instead of figuring out new student orientation parties or football games, you might be navigating social distancing restrictions and event cancellations. You may even go to a school that opened in person, had an outbreak of COVID-19, and subsequently moved online.

Both professional and public responses to these shows have been very polarizing. Many psychiatrists strongly believe that shows like “13 Reasons Why” and “To the Bone” should be banned, since they explicitly depict the details of how to commit suicide and how to unhealthily lose weight. With these details, viewers may decide to do the same. In addition, some people who have experienced mental illnesses that are depicted in the shows believe that these shows can be triggering, worsening the severity of people’s existing symptoms. On the other hand, others who have also experienced these mental illnesses argue that it is important for the public to see what it is truly like to be depressed or have an eating disorder. With sufficient trigger warnings, they argue that the shows should definitely not be banned, as it’s ultimately up to the viewers to decide whether or not to watch these shows.

I find myself torn on this topic. I haven’t watched “To the Bone”, but I’ve watched “13 Reasons Why,” and though I love the main message of the film – which I interpreted to be something along the lines of ‘always be nice to people, you never know what they’re going through’ – I think the show implicitly glamorizes suicide. Because Hannah made the tapes and everyone ended up listening to them, the show gave a vibe where it ultimately took the suicide to lead people to care for Hannah and to feel remorse for their actions. In addition, the graphic depiction of the suicide indeed seems capable of harming those who might have already been considering self-harm without really ever thinking about how exactly to do it.

However, as much as I personally wouldn’t recommend the show to others, I also find it hard to justify the banning of the entire show. If a show like “13 Reasons Why” gets banned, it not only would lead to a grey area of what’s acceptable and what’s not, but also could make it all the more appealing for some people to try and find and watch the show via other methods. With the power of the Internet, anything that gets ‘banned’ is usually still available and even more desirable.

Currently, most of the arguments I see from both sides are anecdotal. Some viewers say that because they have suffered from the disorders and enjoyed the shows, the shows should be allowed. However, other viewers who have also suffered from the disorders say that because they found the shows harmful and thus should be banned. While some experts argue that “13 Reasons Why” could potentially lead to more suicides, no link has been found yet. We simply do not have enough evidence at this point in time.

As of today, all we know for sure is that phrases related to suicide have been searched far more than before. The phrase “how to commit suicide” has risen 26% above what’s normal after the release of 13 Reasons Why. This is worrying, as it suggests a possible rise in suicidal ideation. At the same time, however, the phrase “suicide hotline number” has also increased 21%. Perhaps awareness on how to get help is also increasing.

Unfortunately, it seems that we do not yet have the evidence to come to a clear decision. What we can do instead, in the mean time, is ensure that shows depicting mental illnesses come along with the most comprehensive and educational warnings possible. I do not believe we can take a clear turn away from the status quo, but we can try to make the status quo a bit better.

Sourced by Jeffrey He from hcs.harvard.edu