Content Warning: This article contains a discussion about suicide that may be upsetting to some readers.
When Netflix launched their controversial series “13 Reasons Why,” the topic of how we portray mental health crises on television entered national conversation. With other teen TV shows continuing to show those crises (including Netflix’s recently released “The Politician,” which just got renewed for a season two) — either with graphic precision or with mere references — that conversation has yet to cease.
The dialogue on this issue has centered around a key conflict: whether showing these teens in crisis is important for representation and de-stigmatization, or whether these graphic portrayals are irresponsibly triggering viewers and leveraging mental illness for shock value.
But it seems like a central piece of that conversation is missing. Representation versus exploitation of mental illness aside, why are we not expecting and demanding representation of support, recovery, and resilience alongside these crises?
We want to honor moments of crisis when they happen, and there’s certainly something to be said for (responsibly) representing those moments so that people feel less alone.
But the young adult population watching shows like 13 Reasons Why, the Politician, and Riverdale are in such an impressionable age range. If shows like these claim to want to show teens they aren’t alone, why wouldn’t they portray characters struggling, but also seeking help?
The Institute’s Jennifer Baran-Prall, a trauma recovery expert, recommends showing supportive, empathetic conversations — particularly in shows meant for transition-aged youth audiences.
“We have a good opportunity here to think about the concept of duplicative behavior. These youths can copy positive behavior,” Baran-Prall said.
And if she were writing a television show?
“First of all, I’d show the willingness of someone who is in crisis to talk to somebody that they believe is a trustworthy person,” she said. “What I would like to see demonstrated would be people and young adults having relationships where they can be vulnerable. We don’t demonstrate vulnerability enough in our society, and that to me is a powerful tool.”
But it’s more complicated than that. Not only do we need to show youth in crisis being vulnerable; we also need to see the people they trust reflecting back their own vulnerability through compassion and acceptance.
“You want to show dual vulnerability – the vulnerability of the person struggling to share, and then the vulnerability of the person to then accept it, hear it, and be kind about it,” she said.
So why don’t shows demonstrate those constructive ways in which the characters’ families and friends can respond to those crises?
The easy answer is, it wouldn’t make for good television. But if shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Modern Love (which are geared towards adult audiences) can do it, why can’t shows that are meant for an even more vulnerable and impressionable audience?
It’s a tough sell for producers trying to enter a crowded market of teen television. Yes, 13 Reasons Why received a lot of flak for their graphic portrayal of suicide, but it also was the most tweeted-about show following its premiere in Netflix history. And right or wrong, the show’s controversy generated an obscene amount of publicity, dominating Twitter and the national news cycle for months.
So, whether or not the content is responsible, it certainly sells, which is probably why we’re seeing so many shows follow a similar pattern.
Then again, news outlets are also competing in a market, but they generally adhere to a variation of recommendations for reporting on suicide. Namely, they don’t explicitly describe the methods used, specifically because of the likelihood of copycat behavior. If news sources use these guidelines in the face of potentially increasing profit through sensationalism, why don’t other media?
It is possible to sacrifice market value for the sake of responsibility. TV shows for transition aged youth have to do better.
If they want to portray characters struggling with mental illness under the guise of “representation,” then they need to also provide representation of constructive ways those characters can ask for and receive help.
Edited By: Jennifer Baran-Prall (LCSW), Senior Program Coordinator with the South Southwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center
Help Prevent Suicide
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, immediately call 800-273-TALK (800-273- 8255). The national suicide hotline is staffed around the clock.