Are people using mental health as a form of social currency?

By Grace Farrar

There have been numerous discussions in recent years about the romanticized depictions of mental illness within popular pop culture and the damaging effects this has the capability to have (Vice, 2018). From musicians to tv series, this attempt at both popularizing and glamorising mental illness has arguably created a misrepresentation of psychiatric disorders (Murray, 2020). The way that some media outlets have addressed mental health issues is undeniably beneficial, promoting a conversation and aiding to minimise the stigma. However, there are also space for a discussion around whether such forms of popular culture are creating a view that having a mental health issue is cool and something that is desirable (Jadayel et al, 2018).

The National Institute of Mental Health (2019) announced that the Netflix show 13 Reasons why was associated with 28.9% of suicide rates among U.S youth aged 10-17 in the month of April (2017) following the shows release. There are arguments that such media representations glamorize mental illness in popular culture and present suffering as being part of a trend, something that makes you fit, or a dramatic plot twist to grab viewers, instead of addressing the seriousness of the issues’ individuals suffer with (MTV, 2018).

In addition to conversation surrounding tv series and their representation of mental health, there has also been attention given to the music industry, with comments regarding artists such as Lana Del Rey. One of her songs “Dark Paradise” released by Universal in 2013, and been viewed on YouTube over 4 million times. One of the lyrics reads... 

Your soul is haunting me and telling me that everything is fine, but I wish I was dead". 

Because of lyrics such as these, it has attracted some attention that her lyrics arguably promote depression to fans, leading it to me both glamorous and appealing (Jadayel et al, 2018). However, some would argue that the popularity of such music is due to the fact that people find it relatable which is one of the main reactions music artists such as Lana del Rey want to achieve. 

Alternatively, many celebrities have been praised for their open attitude towards sharing their own mental health struggles with fans, with views of this making the unreachable actually relatable. Celebrities from Bruce Springsteen and Gwyneth Paltrow to Adele and Leonardo DiCaprio have opened up about their experiences with mental health ranging from OCD to postpartum depression. This reminds us that not only are these people talented, but they are real people, like you and I who deal with real issues, but it is important to recognise that this increased advocacy from celebrities has allowed conversations surrounding this glamorisation of mental health to develop (Jadayel et al, 2018).

Popular media/culture has a role in presenting the importance of promoting better mental wellbeing and wanting to normalise the conversations surrounding mental health. But these popular outlets have a duty to present real-time depictions of mental illness, instead of popular interpretations for the approval from popular culture (Vice, 2018). At Unmasked, we are constantly promoting the need to remove the stigma associated with mental health, and through incorporating it into popular culture, reminds us that it is something many individuals deal with and there is no shame. However, there is nothing desirable about suffering with mental health issues, it is not as simplistic as portrayed/depicted in certain media outlets, this is a false impression, instead it is something that can be extremely difficult (MTV, 2018).

As the conversations surrounding mental health continue in popular culture, it is important that if the media is quite rightly incorporating this into story lines, it needs to create content that is a truthful depiction, not redefining what it means to experience mental health in order to fit in and be trendy (Jadayel et al, 2018, MTV, 2018).

 Grace Farrar

Unmasked Co-ordinator 

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