TV Shows Glamorize Drugs and Mental Illness

Jada Bromberg, Staff Writer

No one wants to stand out in a crowd with eyes glaring at them in pity or criticism. To avoid conflict, people may suppress their feelings of anxiety, depression or frustration. Fear of being judged and labeled by society often keeps a person from speaking out. Hearing true stories of those who have experienced mental health concerns is a more accurate representation than fictional books or films, and has a greater impact on ending the stigma.

“There are several proactive organizations and agencies (i.e., NAMI, SAMHSA, etc.) whose mission is to advocate, educate, and provide resources to individuals/families who are affected by mental illness,” School Psychologist Risha Lamba, said.

These organizations help spread the message to others that they are not alone in their struggles. Even a small spark of hope could give someone enough light to make the choice to reach out for help. When a story resonates with someone, it allows them to be more accepting of their own journey. 

Cartoon drawing by Catherine DeCarlo

Popular Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, debuted in 2017 and sparked major controversy around its portrayal of mental illness and suicide. The theme of the show is “the idea that everyone is fighting a hard battle that may not be apparent on the surface,” according to Vulture News. After watching the first episode in seventh grade, my initial understanding of the plot was to bring awareness to the serious effects of unhealthy behavior going unaddressed. However, the unrealistic storyline in which Hannah Baker, the main character, creates a number of pre-made recordings to arrive at her classmate’s door supposedly with answers to what caused her to turn to suicide focuses heavily on the attention she suddenly receives, therefore glamorizing her decision.

Material portrayed throughout each season brings ongoing awareness to times of crisis. Yet, as someone who has personally experienced mental health challenges, I know that explicit content shown can be triggering to viewers. In response to the excessive watch rate, Netflix continued to renew the show for three additional seasons, making a total of forty nine episodes. By the third season, characters were making up to $200,000 per episode, according to Seventeen, a media site directed towards teens.

Overall, the episodes of 13 Reasons Why do not provide substantial resources for ways to cope with difficult thoughts and emotions. It makes me question whether the writer had the well-being of its audience as the top priority, or, rather, if hooking people to the tragic storyline in order to gain high ratings and massive amounts of money to increase revenue outweighed the importance of bringing true awareness to the subject. 

Programs such as 13 Reasons Why, and Euphoria which glamorizes the effects of teen drug abuse and self harm, are often watched by teens, and the portrayal of these struggles make reaching out for help looked down upon. Producing shows such as 13 Reasons Why and Euphoria may bring partial reality to mental health issues, but the way the characters represent society’s response is more glamorizing the acts than bringing awareness to the ongoing problem. 

“It is the responsibility of the producers/film to be cognizant of potential consequences and make adjustments to the narrative,” Lamba said. “I would hope that both shows encourage viewers to seek professional support if they are experiencing significant mental health challenges.”

Hearing true stories of those who live with a mental illness or drug addiction is the most impactful way to bring awareness to others. In reality, mental health stigma can only be addressed if it’s talked about in real life.