Importance of Accurate Mental Health Disorder Representation in the Media

Importance of Accurate Mental Health Disorder Representation in the Media

By Tehya Wachuta, Editor-in-Chief Originally published in Issue 8, Volume 33 of The University Register on February 26, 2021

Like many people, I have expanded the list of shows I’ve been watching during the past year’s quarantine. Being stuck inside, streaming shows has become one of my primary methods of entertainment. One show I watched recently was Netflix’s “Trinkets,” which centers on three high school girls who form a close relationship through attending a Shoplifters Anonymous meeting.

There are a lot of things I liked about this show, but one of the best things for me was the way it portrayed kleptomania in one of the main characters, Elodie. She wasn’t stealing to try to be cool, or to stick it to big box stores, or because she was bored. She did it as a compulsive stress-reliever and had little control over her actions, continuing to steal even when she was trying not to.

Kleptomania is a compulsive disorder, right up there with pyromania (the compulsion to set things on fire) and trichotillomania (the compulsion to pull out one’s own hair). All of these disorders provide an individual with a stress-relief activity, and because they are compulsive disorders, the individual does not have control over their behavior; instead, a person will likely feel increasingly stressed until they perform the behavior, then begin to rely on that behavior for stress relief.

By our digital-age standards, “Trinkets” is not exactly a new show anymore, but I still will try not to spoil anything specific. My point is that the show portrayed Elodie’s stealing as compulsive, and it made the viewer feel her stress with the lighting, dissonant music, and frantic actions that accompanied her stealing sprees. Although “Trinkets” wasn’t a perfect show, I was pleasantly surprised by the way they handled the young girls’ kleptomania, displaying it as a legitimate disorder these teens had developed from different major stressors in their lives rather than a group of kids trying to live it up and steal out of defiance.

Watching “Trinkets” got me thinking about representation of mental health disorders in our media. Although our society seems to be shifting toward a conscious effort to be more inclusive in TV, books, and movies, we still have a long way to go. Even though some disorders are receiving more positive representation in today’s media, we are still working with a long history of discrimination and misrepresentation that is still coloring our perception of these characters. Some shows have tried to be inclusive but have fallen into harmful or problematic tropes. Although they were good-intentioned, they still end up spreading incorrect messages about mental health to their viewers. Some shows have showcased non-neurotypical characters but have avoided giving them any specific diagnosis. This could be positive, as it may enable a wider range of viewers to relate to the character, but it also could give a feeling of erasure to viewers who relate to the character. One show with this issue that comes to my mind is the 2005-2017 show “Bones.” The show’s creator has stated that even though the main character, Temperance Brennan, was written to emulate a person with Asperger Syndrome, the show refrained from diagnosing her because they were afraid that viewership would plummet once they confirmed that they had a non-neurotypical main character.

Although Asperger Syndrome is a developmental disorder rather than a mental health disorder, the decision to erase Brennan’s diagnosis affected some viewers in the same way media erasure affects anyone – some people felt as though they had been marginalized, as though society had decided people like them were unfit to be represented in pop culture. Although a lack of a clear diagnosis certainly does not prevent viewers from identifying with a character, it can make them feel as though their identities are shameful and should be kept secret.

But why is it so important to have positive media representation? Shouldn’t people be able to find comfort, community, and identity in real life, disregarding how they may or may not be represented in the media? Realistically, the people who find this a non-issue are likely people who have not had to struggle with how their identity is portrayed to the public. We live in a time where digital entertainment heavily affects our worldviews, self-perception, and beliefs about other people. Having consistently inaccurate, misguided, or harmful portrayals of any group of people can be detrimental for real-life viewers who identify with those characters. When a person is unable to find a positive or accurate representation of themselves in pop culture, it can make them feel marginalized and unworthy of being understood. TV may just be a form of entertainment, but for many people, especially in a world where kids are exposed to technology at younger and younger ages, it is also a form of escapism. And when a person is unable to find a positive representation of their community in what is meant to be a stressless activity, it can be more detrimental than we may realize.

Image on top courtesy of Out of my Gord