If you’ve been online in the past few months, you’ve seen countless discussions about The Netflix drama series “13 Reasons Why” and its portrayal of and effects on mental health. Our VOX Media Cafe team was inspired by these conversations. We decided to tackle the topic of mental health and the media, and how the two interact.
Media can negatively affect mental health, but it can also positively affect mental health.
Through media representation spotlighting different kinds of people, teens are starting to see more people who look and act like them. Shows such as “Blackish” and “Fresh off the Boat” feature diverse families in America, which aren’t typically depicted in popular entertainment.
Shanti Das, founder of Silence the Shame, an Atlanta-based organization dedicated to destroying the stigma around mental illness, told VOX Media Cafe reporters, “It’s very enlightening and empowering if you are an African-American and you see a family like on ‘Blackish’ with parents with successful jobs and a great lifestyle, being able to see your ethnicity represented.”
Similarly, the gay-themed teen romantic comedy “Love, Simon” portrays a healthy, positive queer relationship, while also realistically presenting the reactions of the characters outside of the relationship. This allows viewers to get a better understanding of the people around them. Media like this can help normalize diversity.
Diverse media representation can also foster a stronger sense of identity and pride among the groups represented. “Television has underrepresented many minority groups in the past,” Das told us. “So the more we can highlight different communities, it will certainly boost the self-esteem of those individuals, as long as it shows them in a positive light.”
A 2006 American Psychological Association reported people who see someone in popular culture who act as a realistic representation of your demographic feels good and can even aid in cultural socialization. Cultural socialization is a practice in which a young person is educated on their heritage. It can cultivate pride. The strong self image that comes along with this can also be beneficial to mental health.
In addition to seeing people of various races, gender identities, and sexualities, seeing people of varied body types can also improve self-esteem, and ultimately, mental health. A 2001 study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence assessed adolescent boys and girls in grades 5, 8 and 12, revealing strong links between the media, body image and self-esteem. By featuring a wider range of body types in the media, teens’ self image will improve, thus bettering their mental health.
What we see in mass media also often translates into our social media platforms. With the way people joke about serious mental issues online, it has the potential to be offensive to those who actually live through mental health problems. There are a lot of teens who make jokes on social media when they don’t actually mean it. Jokes incorporating depression, suicide, bipolar disorder, autism, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are very common. They are often used to describe low-scale symptoms which could invalidate those who have mental illnesses because the things they struggle with are being categorized with what would meet the bare minimum.
“I actually get very offended when people throw mental health around like it’s something to joke about,” said one Atlanta teen. “Some people are affected by their illness to the point where they can’t eat, sleep, or even function normally because it is too severe. So jokes involving mental illness don’t sit with me well.”
Body image is also a common topic for criticism. Society puts pretty people on pedestals and sets standards for beauty, which create a sense of inferiority among those who don’t look or act a certain way. You can look at any fashion magazine and find that there is photoshopped image of a skinny girl or a well toned guy on the cover. You instantly want to have that kind of body because that’s what you are told is attractive. So naturally, someone who doesn’t have that “perfect body” won’t feel as pretty because they aren’t getting the same recognition, which lowers their self esteem.
We’ve seen that media can have a dichotomous effect on mental health in teens. It can diversify and promote positive messages to teens such as social acceptance and tolerance.
On the other hand, it can cause issues with body image and self esteem, which can lead to more serious mental health issues.
We can help by directing teens who may be struggling with their mental health to organizations, including The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Atlanta Chapter, The Link Counseling Center, and the Georgia Suicide Prevention Information Network (GSPIN).
Ethan Jacobs and Isabel Reynolds of VOX Media Café interviewed Atlanta-based teen musician Demo Taped about how he uses his music to discuss mental health.