Mental illnesses are not a trend


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By Shreya Partha, Beacon Correspondent

Constructive conversations about mental health seemed unattainable to me as a naïve twelve-year-old. Any mention of mental health was quickly silenced by dismissive remarks from the adults in my life. Growing up in the Bay Area—home to radical technological advancements, Apple headquarters, and insanely successful startups—I was submerged in a culture of overachievers, which only made confrontation harder.  

Recently, the public perception of mental health has shifted from stigma to sensationalism. But even sensationalizing stigma is still stigma. According to Edelweiss Behavioral Health, individuals hold up their mental illnesses as a neon “pay attention to me” sign. It is incredibly good that we’re paying attention to mental health issues, but it becomes a problem when these conversations start to romanticize mental illnesses and portray them as a commodity to be acquired instead of a life sentence.   

The media plays a huge part in enabling this reductive rhetoric. When Netflix first released “13 Reasons Why,” online traffic searches related to suicide deaths skyrocketed. But what’s worse is the correlation between such searches and actual suicides. According to the American Council on Science and Health, the following 1 percent increase in suicide-related searches was directly linked to 54 actual suicides in the U.S. 

The show explains the story of Hannah Baker’s suicide through 13 audio tapes, each of which reveal details of why she blamed different people for her suicide. In fact, Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the JED Foundation, told NBC News that many of the show’s imagery and actions can be considered harmful for developing adolescents who might be grappling with suicidal thoughts. He cites one scene specifically where a school guidance counselor failing to identify self-harmful thoughts in Hannah could prevent real-life students from asking for help when they need it. 

Phyllis Alongi, clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, agreed. 

“We feel it was done irresponsibly and we don’t agree with many portrayals including of Hannah’s death, memorialization, and placing blame on others,” Alongi said in an interview with NBC. 

Additionally, Alongi said that suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults. And the numbers are increasing.

“13 Reasons Why” quickly gained popularity, and the most concerning aspect about its release is the precedent it sets for future media. It tells producers, writers, and directors that the messages in “13 Reasons Why” are the new industry standard.  The movie’s publicity implies that approaching topics as precarious as mental health in a similarly blasé manner is acceptable. It’s not. 

Dropping phrases like “I feel so depressed today” or “I’m so OCD” without a  diagnosis when one is just experiencing feelings of depression or anxiety can be insensitive to those who suffer from those illnesses everyday. As more people associate feelings of depression and anxiety to the actual illness, it makes those who have mental illness feel less important. After all, what’s the point of seeking help when everyone feels “so depressed?” 

After consuming such media, I felt discouraged to reach out for help as well. I did not believe that therapy could help me or that mental health professionals were proficient at their jobs at all. Because of mental health’s sensationalization, I waited much longer than I care to admit to seek the help I needed. I wanted to get help, but I did not believe that it would do me any good.

Don’t get me wrong, it is certainly a significant step that these conversations are starting to become more common—that’s how better clinical advancements can be made and people can feel validated in their experiences. Much of the decisions made in the mental health field are ambiguous and complex; as such, sharing as much information as possible is necessary in order to provide valuable informatione to clinical and mental health professionals, according to the National Library of Medicine.  

It is true that normalizing mental health has paved the way for more candid conversations. As Gen-Z becomes more socially aware, mental health has become just one of the pressing social issues that need to be talked about. This can, ironically, be credited to social media. According to Harvard Pilgrim HealthCare, social media’s adverse effects are ever-present, however, more teenagers are leveraging social media’s reach for good as well. 

On TikTok, users are sharing suggestions on how to cope with a variety of mental health challenges. Some users have even created successful podcasts like “Teenager Therapy” that discuss issues that teenagers and adolescents face, and suggest resources, coping methods, and different viewpoints to help digest them. 

However, the national spotlight has set a damaging precedent for mental illnesses to excuse harmful behavior. For example, more impressionable teenagers will lash out against family members instead of seeking help—ultimately convincing themselves that they are in the right because of their mental illness.

To cite a more extreme case, mental illness is frequently used as an argument against gun control. After mass shootings, people often blame mental illnesses as the cause of gun violence, according to The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. However, this is not the case. In fact, out of 235 mass murders, only around 22 percent can be credited to a mental illness of some sort, according to The New York Times. In any case, mental illnesses should not ever be used to justify something as cruel as mass murder. 

The de-stigmatization of mental health—though positive in some ways—has ultimately re-stigmatized mental health. Taking a more rational perspective when discussing mental health will be more constructive in shaping public perception of mental illness in the future, as people will start to use a more empathetic lens compared to the over-glamorized version they consume through the media. It’s hard to foresee how mental illnesses will be understood in the future, but what I do know is that twelve-year-old me would be overjoyed at the candidness surrounding the conversations I have regarding mental health now.