The Representation Of Mental Illness In TV Shows & Films | Emily Bashforth

The Representation Of Mental Illness In TV Shows & Films


I was inspired to write this blog post after watching a film that moved me in a way that no film ever has, or ever could. It was titled 'A Girl Like Her' and it is a Netflix film, although you can find it elsewhere online.
The movie tells the story of high school student Jessica Burns, who enlists the help of her best friend, Brian, in order to document the relentless harassment she's received from former friend, Avery Keller, the school's most popular student. Jessica has been tormented by Avery for months through physical abuse, online trolling and verbal nasty comments such as "Go and kill yourself" and "No one would notice if you disappeared." Avery's behaviour has a devastating effect on Jessica when she feels as though she can't live with it any more. The film begins with her overdosing on pills in a bid to end her life and shows her progress in hospital throughout, leaving you wondering whether or not she's going to make it and whether or not the bully will face up to what she did.


I cried pretty much the whole way through this film as, not only out of relatability, but the acting was so spot on and the whole thing was just dealt with brilliantly. It really got me really thinking about the way mental health issues are portrayed in films and TV shows because the writers of this film did such a fantastic job with getting everything so true to life. Personally, I have never seen a film deal with bullying in such a realistic way. I know that everyone's experience of bullying is different, however, I just have not found any other TV show of film that captures the harsh realities of it properly. I find many are cliché. Their plots usually consist of the popular, blonde American high school girl with a boyfriend who is captain of the sports' team, picking on the nerdy girl with the tweed skirts and glasses. By the end of the film, the geeky girl has learnt to stand up for herself and ends up dating some attractive guy after completely changing her image and becoming so hot that the bully ends up being jealous of her. Don't tell me that you've never come across a show or film like that. Now, I'm not saying that that doesn't happen. I know it does but what I wish the producers of these shows and films understood is that there are a million and one other forms of bullying. Any type of person can be targeted in a variety of ways, not just horrible text messages and name calling, and there can be dire consequences. The way in which 'A Girl Like Her' dealt with bullying was perfect, in my opinion. Too many people take their own lives due to bullying each year and not all are as fortunate as Jessica and survive their suicide attempts, despite setting out with the intent not to survive simply because they've had enough. 'A Girl Like Her' really captures the pure evilness of bullies and shows it isn't just the odd "Ew, you're ugly" comment, it’s the relentless "You deserve to die" comments. It’s making someone's life a misery. This film also does a great job of portraying Jessica's family's reaction to her actions and it was one of the things that hit me the hardest. Not many films really capture the sheer heartbreak parents experience when their child harms themselves or, if they do, they tend to focus more on the mother, whereas this one equally shows the pain her dad feels too. Finally, this isn't a film review or analysis or anything like that, by the way, I just genuinely have fallen in love with every aspect of it. I love how this film shows the bully's reaction when she realises what she has done. Avery doesn't just go and say sorry to the principle and BOOM it’s all over, she genuinely suffers too and we get to see her unstable home situation and how that has shaped her into who she is. As well as that, it does a great job of highlighting the fact that schools, in no way, do enough to promote anti-bullying and how unnoticed it often goes. Many teachers claim to have a 100% no bullying policy in their schools but children in those schools are still harassed every day of their lives and nothing is done about it.

In a nutshell, this is a movie you need to watch and take note of. It isn't even one hour thirty minutes long. You won't be wasting your time. It’s an eye opener.

Going back to the subject of the portrayal of mental illness in TV shows and films in general, I am certain that it isn't just me who believes writers really need to step up their game? Just a disclaimer, I am speaking very generally here. I've seen TV shows and films where mental illness are dealt with perfectly, however, for the most part, mental illness is not portrayed correctly at all.

I feel as though the majority of representations of taboo subjects, like eating disorders, depression, suicide, sexuality crises, bullying and other mental illnesses, are incredibly false, highly unrealistic and, quite frankly, laughable, as many of the producers must think they know what it is like to be in those situations simply after perhaps reading one news article or watching some chick flick. They assume everyone in those situations suffers the same, but that is where the problem lies. Everyone who suffers with mental illnesses suffers in an entirely different way. Not one experience is comparable with another. Everyone has a different back story which has contributed towards their illness, everyone lives in a different environment and is surrounded by different people with different opinions but, most of all, everyone has a different mind and no two people have exactly the same thoughts. Now, seeing as though everyone suffers in a completely different way in terms of mental illnesses, I know it would be hard to portray every single one of them in a film or TV show, however, the way in which mental illnesses are portrayed could be broadened. I want everyone suffering with a mental illness to have at least one film or show that they can absolutely relate to and which embodies everything that they feel but, instead, they're left to watch cliché representations of their illnesses, which I honestly think belittle and undermine their suffering.

Not only do false representations of mental illness in TV and film make the sufferers of mental illness feel alone, but it also creates a more ignorant society in general. If you're only showing depression in one way, then you're leading audiences on to believe that it only exists in one form and you're preventing them from recognising the other symptoms of it and other ways in which it can exist. Nothing is black and white, especially when it comes to mental health.

The media are extremely powerful, we all know that. They can change millions of people's views on a person or situation simply with one sentence. TV shows and films can reach anyone and everyone and the people creating them really do have the potential to open up people's eyes to mental health problems but they are choosing not to. Simply by making a realistic TV show or film on mental illness, you can educate a whole host of people around the world. You can show them what it’s really like to fight an internal battle every day, you can encourage them to look a little closer to home and look closely for the symptoms of mental health so they can do something about it before it’s too late. But no, instead, terrible, falsified films and TV shows are made, leading people to believe that, for example, eating disorders, are just a teenage girl stopping eating and losing a load of weight until all of her bones stick out. YES eating disorders do exist in that form, but there are so many other kinds that people need to start talking about. If the public aren't educated on mental illnesses via the most influential source, the source that they rely on for a lot of things, how are they supposed to spot the signs of a loved one's mental health deteriorating? How are people supposed to understand people if people don't educate them? I feel that the media has a real responsibility to address real life issues properly and it is something which big companies need to take notice of. Yes, Disney, it's very nice making movies about a mermaid who makes friends with the fish or an Ice Queen with magical powers, however, I would love to see a film about a princess with an eating disorder, suicidal thoughts, who struggles with her sexuality, and so on. That isn't me trying to be morbid. And many may argue that that wouldn't be right and that we need to protect children's innocence and guard them from those big bad adult things, I disagree. I think it’s vital that we start educating children early on about mental health, not to scare them, but to ensure that it doesn't become such a taboo subject when they get older. There is so much stigma, still, surrounding mental health, but if we talk about it more openly with young people, they'll be the ones growing up simply accepting it as a part of life and knowing enough about it to be able to recognise the signs. Teens today are so afraid to speak up about their mental health problems because of the way they are portrayed in the media and because they've always been brought up in an environment where it simply wasn't spoken about. It isn't about only speaking about mental illnesses when somebody you know has one, it’s about integrating them into everyday discussions and never stopping speaking about them so we can understand one another better, so we know what to do when we encounter mental illnesses, so we aren't afraid to talk about our issues and so our children understand that it is OKAY TO BE MENTALLY ILL.

To cut a long story short, I do just wish that writers of TV shows and films that are attempting to tackle mental health problems would do their research and educate themselves fully on the topic. Actors too. Before you try and act as someone suffering with an inner conflict on trying to decide if they're gay or not, do your research and discover what it is like to actually be in that position. Do your role justice. Go to support groups, talk to people online, contact charities, go to the police, there is a lot more that TV and film companies can do in order to make their products as true to life as possible. It’s no good just speaking to one person with a mental illness and deciding that you've totally sussed everyone with a mental illness. It’s all relative and there aren't rules which you have to abide by when being mentally ill.

To anyone who works in media, you have a lot of power to create something amazing and just by creating one film that really perfectly captures one of life's hardships, you can have a huge impact. So do things properly.
To anyone who has made a TV show or film that has captured an aspect of mental health in the correct way, for example, 'A Girl Like Her,' thank you and congratulations.

I would love to know your thoughts on all of this. Do you think mental illnesses are portrayed properly on our screens?

Love, Emily :) xx

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