// MENTAL HEALTH //
ENOUGH WITH THE MONOLOGUE
Content warning: This article contains in depth talk of issues pertaining to mental illness and suicide. Mood disorders, eating disorders and anxiety are mentioned and discussed.
Having overcome the initial inevitable aggravation that results from a binge watch of 13 Reasons Why when you’re one of the (insert approximate disproportionately very tiny number) people on this planet who genuinely care about mental health, I found myself, strangely, passive. Passive, not in a – Dude, I Don’t Even Care – sort of way, but more so in a – I Care About This In Such Drastic Proportions And I Have So Much To Say That I Know Almost All Attempts In Doing So Will Be Incoherent And Inadequate mingled with the classic But It’s Just A Show Does It Even Matter – way. But in a recent Literature class as I watched my teacher hand me, on a silver platter – the scene in which Claudio disgraces Hero for her supposed loose morals at the congregation of their wedding – in the name of what is supposed to be a romantic comedy written by the greatest playwrights of the time, I was acutely made aware of the catastrophic consequences of over-hyped entertainment. In a world where we have already committed the grave mistake of deeming Shakespeare as a classic for the romantics, we do not need a 13 Reasons Why to be put on a pedestal as the best we can do for the mentally ill.
Stop the tape.
Illustrated by Jiyeon Yoo.
13 Reasons Why is a Netflix adapted television series based on the 2007 novel of the same title. The show revolves around a student, Hannah Baker, who kills herself and the thirteen tapes she makes prior to her death for the people she deems the cause for her decision to end her life. As though the plot, doesn’t sound problematic enough, the damage done in it’s execution and the aftermath of the show by the hands of gullible teenagers on social media is much worse. Past the dense canopy of its graphic content and obviously sensationalized portrayal of mental health issues, I can still see how this show could have been made with noble intentions. But even if that was the case, between glamorizing the concept of revenge suicide, romanticizing it and offering virtually no awareness about the issue itself or seeking help, 13 Reasons Why hardly deserves the title we have oh so conveniently given it as The Show™ that cured mental illness and ended bullying.
The problem isn’t so much the show itself, but rather what we have made of it.
Truth is, we love playing the blame game. That’s why we popularized a show whose entire plot is based on a suicidal girl blaming the people in her life for the cause of her death. But it doesn’t work like that. The causes of mental health issues range from neurochemical imbalances to environmental stimuli to our internal cognitive processes. They are almost never mutually exclusive and always, complex and contextually dependant.
As though, fundamentally ignoring the complexity of this issue wasn’t enough, the creators of the show had the audacity to romanticize it. Nearing the end of the show, it is revealed that Clay Jensen is on the tapes because he never pursued his feelings for Hannah. “I caused a girl to kill her self because I was afraid to love her.” Mental illness isn’t just some broken heart that you can fix with a cute pink love band aid.
There are no knights. There are just the nights when you want nothing more than to seek help but you decide otherwise when you see “I’m triggered,” being used as a meme for the twelfth time and the only shining armor are your ten million unhealthy defense mechanisms. Mental illness is not a Disney movie. Neither is it anything like a Netflix adaptation. It feels more like the start of a dystopian novel: like you’re watching the whole world crash and burn while sitting there acutely aware of your dysfunctional existence, like trying to open a package of scissors that reads, “use scissors to open packaging,” – like a helpless kind of hopeless.
But no matter how many elaborate metaphors I use, mental illness isn’t made to fit into a poetic black and white Tumblr grunge aesthetic. We always talk about mental health issues as some vague abstract notion without ever discussing their very real repercussions. At the end of the day, mental illness is dysfunction and the nitty gritty details of dealing with its manifestations everyday can range from horrifying to just awkward – but certainly nothing like your climactic sensationalized aesthetics.
Mental illness is the strange concoction of low self-esteem and excitement. Excitement, because your doctor just started you on regular release lithium and you can’t wait to kick your manic depression’s arse but the wavering self-esteem because even though you clearly read the acne as a side-effect, stamped in fine print on that translucent orange bottle, when it finally happens, cystic back acne will always be a mood killer. Anxiety isn’t always getting hugged during a panic attack, sometimes it manifests itself as a vague gradually building mental pre-occupation with everything which makes you restless and cranky, so everyone just thinks you’re a bitch. Mental illness is heart disease and grey hair and missing your period – the side of Anorexia nervosa no thinspiration blog will tell you about. Suicide doesn’t look like peace or the way out or your boyfriend kissing your scars, it looks like hospitals and guilt and wearing long sleeve t-shirts in June.
But the issue itself isn’t the only thing that 13 Reasons Why has made into a one sided cherry picked narrative. Perhaps, even more problematic is the way that they have portrayed Hannah’s character.
My sympathies are with her. Hannah Baker was bullied. Hannah Baker was suicidal. Hannah Baker was a victim. But funny word, victim is: it almost inherently makes you a prisoner of the following implications no matter what the circumstances. One, that there can be only one victim. Two, that the victim can’t ever be the bully. It is true that Hannah Baker was a victim, struggling. But we take a blind eye to the large probability that so was Clay Jensen, as indicated by the bottle of pills his mother tries to get him to take. We choose forget that Courtney too suffered from internalized homophobia and that the very tapes that Hannah made lead Alex to kill himself.
But in our minds, Hannah Baker is still only the victim and the only victim.
It is not my intention to take away from the experiences of those suffering from mental illness, I only intend to offer some much needed perspective because this mentality is toxic and damaging to both – the diseased individual and their interpersonal relationships. Relationships intertwined with mental illness are messy and exhausting and require constant awareness and effort. The conventional rules don’t seem to apply. The lines get blurred. It’s just a big fat grey area and it sucks because the rest of the world only seems to see in the binary of black and white.
“Mental illness is a giant question mark with no definitive answers.”
You notice the tell tale signs of an eating disorder in a friend. They ask you not to say anything and you know it is not your place but you do anyway and force them to get help. Is the personal betrayal necessary for a greater purpose justified? Your fairly new boyfriend who is bipolar buys you a Tiffany and Co. necklace. A grand gesture of affection or the manifestation of the grandiosity of a manic episode? Was it them or the illness? Your best friend with anxiety hasn’t talked to you in ten days. Is she ignoring you or can she not talk because between the stress of school, people and stress itself it’s loud enough in her head already? Is it them or the illness? Your partner and you try being intimate for the first time after a fresh diagnosis of their PTSD. You are as gentle as possible but they cannot help but flinch. Even in the face of trauma, you will ask yourself a million times, is it you or the illness? How can you conclude a definitive line of reasoning between their illness and behavior? At what point in a dysfunctional relationship, does one’s mental illness stop being an excuse for their problematic actions? Is there a difference between a reason and an excuse? Does it matter?
While people with anxiety disorders do not want their limits pushed, some acknowledge that had it not been for their friends and family trying to push them out of their comfort zone, they would have never reached that point in their recovery at which they stand. And truly, you are the only person who can decide when you’ve had enough of their mental health affecting yours. The point isn’t who is the victim and who isn’t. The point is that these issues need to be dealt with constant communication and bilateral consideration and context in mind.
That doesn’t stop the self help blogs from making public service announcements without any context about how someone’s mental illness should not allow damaging behaviour while the mentally ill make angry tweets about people who choose to support them only up until they start showing symptoms. We spend so much time talking over each other that in the grand scheme of things we forget to listen. In these moments of conflicting ideas I find it best to remind myself that there are always two sides to a coin. They’re called a head and tail, not necessarily a right and a wrong.
Sometimes we just need to see things for what they are.
Perhaps, the only thing we can do is to acknowledge the complexity and multi-facted nature of mental health and consequently to stop over simplifying it to fit it into one sided sensationalized plots and the binary of right and wrong. I don’t know the dictionary definition of a disaster but I’m pretty sure it looks a lot like trying to reduce complex matters of subjectivity to objective rules. Unlike other social issues, with mental health, the problem is more than just ignorance. The fact that even with growing up having been surrounded by qualified doctors all my life I have heard my fair share of problematic comments about mental illness serves as proof. It is something inherent – deeply rooted, in the way we’ve been taught to associate feelings with weakness. It works simultaneously at different levels: while the generation above us is hell bent on invalidating it, us millennials with our plethora of misleading media, intentionally or not, have admittedly glorified and romanticized it to no extent. And if you think about it, it makes sense – having had our feelings invalidated for so long, to solidify our claims, we began to place importance in labels, which soon turned into overcompensating and glorifying and mental health activists accusing the so called neurotypicals of trivializing mental illness by self diagnosis for attention because it harms their cause. Here’s a thought, if someone comes to you and says, “________ happened, I’m depressed,” and your first reaction is to obnoxiously clarify in the name of your activism that depression is actually a mental illness, maybe you’re part of the problem.
Keeping the existent state of glorification of mental illness in mind, while your concerns are legitimate, basing validation of mental illness on labels that you can claim only using professional diagnosis is a slippery slope. Not everyone lives in the United States of America and has the resources to have a high profile Malibu therapist on speed dial. Not to forget the many minors in unsupportive familial situations that cannot reach out for help. Even as I write this article with good intent, I acknowledge that my exposure to mental illness also comes from a place of immense privilege. And that is saying something because, I live in a country where for the mass rural population mental illness is synonymous with exorcism and electroshock therapy.
“But, really, it’s just a show.”
This article is about 13 Reasons Why. But, really, it’s more of a reality check for what it says about us that we think that a one sided sensationalized show about revenge suicide is going to end the stigma surrounding mental health. In reality, we need to start by acknowledging that we can only speak from a limited perspective. Consequently, we try our hardest not to speak over each other. We start a conversation, the stigma will end itself.
Enough with the monologue.
Stop the tape. Rewind.
Aditi Wakhlu, The First Of Her Name, Breaker of Societal Norms, Queen of Sarcasm, Master of Puns, etymology freak, debater, videographer, violinist. This spoken-word-fanatic, who is an unusual combination of a lazy perfectionist, has a wonderfully appeasing sense of aesthetics. Her sense of political correctness and taste in music is in its most literal sense of the term, award-worthy.
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