For Better Or For Worse: Netflix's Continued Efforts To Feature Content About Mental Illness

It should not come as a surprise that television content creators are getting bolder with what they show to viewers. Perhaps among the most bold is the online streaming service Netflix. As a leading excavator in pursuit to feature intense and in-depth topics in their shows, certain series from this outlet have featured complicated social issues at the center of their plots. Among those are depression, sexual assault, race, LGBTQ+ matters and, now, eating disorders ― via Netflix’s release of “To The Bone” on July 14. With the increasing discussion on these topics, I think it’s immensely important to explore the consequences and reactions of unraveling these intense subjects through platforms that primarily have had the purpose to entertain.

Teen audience-targeted show 13 Reasons Why stirred up conversation when it premiered on Netflix this past spring. It addressed a number of typically taboo topics―and not without a wide range of reactions.

The show is centered around high schooler Hannah Baker, who recorded an infamous collection of 13 tapes that each listed a specific person and/or reason that drove her to take her own life. Her eventual suicide, along with the sexual assault of two characters, are graphically featured during the first season.

Some think that displaying this kind of content opens an imperative dialogue about topics that before now have not been shown in grave detail. “13 Reasons” writer Nic Sheff, who has struggled with mental illness himself, is proud that the series depicted the suicide. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Sheff explains “...the most irresponsible thing [the writers] could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all.” He felt it was crucial for viewers “...to see the ultimate reality that suicide is not a relief at all—it’s a screaming, agonizing, horror.”

However, this viewpoint is contradicted by those who think the complete opposite―that showing these horrific events actually romanticize the issues.

The motivation behind “13 Reasons” may have been well-intended, but it didn’t hit the mark with some. It was a show that was supposed to be about mental illness, but didn’t address mental illness really at all. Anna Silman expressed in an article for The Cut that “despite devoting 13 hours to the subject, 13 Reasons Why offers very little insight into the psychology of suicide.” Instead, it focuses on “a narrow narrative that implies that bullying leads to suicide,” according to Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H. The way Hannah Baker’s character is represented makes her seem all-knowing, condescending at times, which to some may glorify her illness and her decision to kill herself. It is curious to think how all of Hannah’s 13 reasons are directly related to a person, but not one is connected with her own individual mental health.

Similar concerns that were prevalent with the release of “13 Reasons” were raised again when Netflix published a trailer for the newly-released film To The Bone last month. The movie is meant to display the horrors of struggling with an eating disorder. Thousands of people took to Facebook to leave comments on the trailer expressing their concerns.

Certain viewers feel that by reenacting the components of these subject matters is triggering to those who already suffer, or negatively impacting impressionable, often younger viewers.

Others found it ironic and upsetting that To The Bone star Lily Collins--who announced earlier this year that she once struggled with an eating disorder herself--lost weight for the purpose of the film.

On the other hand, some people who have fought their own battle with EDs in the past expressed great optimism:

So, it’s clear people have varying opinions about bringing these serious subjects to light via television. Here’s why that matters:

First, whether your outlook is positive or negative, it is starting a conversation about these topics -- through an extremely popular format. In 2016, Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson Research published a report that revealed that 81% of adults under the age of 35 have a Netflix subscription. This means that an enormous number of people worldwide have access to these programs and can formulate their own thoughts on these issues.

Second, these programs are bringing more to the table than just discussion about mental illness. With the increasing prevalence of shows like this, we do get redeeming qualities like seemless race and sexuality integration in the plots. “13 Reasons” incorporated numerous characters of various races, with at least three cast members playing non-straight roles. Mallory Carra mentioned in a Bustle article that “It's so refreshing to see a fictional school that doesn't subscribe to tired tropes for characters' ethnicities, making the Netflix series a huge step forward when it comes to increasing representation on TV.”

Finally, platforms that were created for entertainment purposes now represent something bigger. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this analysis is that entertainment can be more than just that--it is successfully becoming an outlet to educate, agitate, and mediate conversations that need to be happening and should not be shied away from.

Yes, there is indeed a fine line between bringing awareness to issues and romanticizing and glorifying them. And yes, not everyone can be satisfied when covering sensitive topics. Hopefully, television content creators will keep refining the recipe for portraying this kind of material to encourage important dialogues about these topics and more.

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