Imagine with me for a moment. Let’s say you’re a 13 year old girl, a little awkward, a little lonely, trying to find yourself in the world, so you run to TV shows and books, taking every line, word, and letter to heart. You find yourself (and who you want to be) in these strange worlds, but not quite everything. Missing from these realities you find yourself lost in, is something that’s becoming a frightening and familiar part of teenagers’ lives. Mental illness.
Anyone who’s read Harry Potter knows that Harry’s life isn’t easy. He grows up in an abusive home, is forced to fight a war for a world he isn’t part of, and deals with hardship after hardship. It is only fair to assume that, in the end, he’ll turn out a little banged up. According to the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, this isn’t quite the case.
Nineteen short years after defeating the figurative devil of the wizarding world and losing countless family and friends, our beloved Harry is married, has three kids, and seems happy. Though this is probably the ending many Potterheads had hoped for, it has bothered me since I first read it. He just doesn’t act like someone who has gone through trials and tribulations. Instead, he gives off the air of a tired parent, excited to see his son head off to school.
It’s a puzzling situation that seems to show up throughout media in a consistent pattern. We are frequently given heroes and heroines who battle their way through demons and monsters of every kind, watch the world break and then rebuild it on their own, only to come out unscathed. About 1 in 5 teens today have some sort of mental illness, be it diagnosed or otherwise, and portraying their idols as being unaffected by the trials of life is unhealthy. It can lead them to think that they are weak or less than others for going through the same, or similar, struggles and being beaten by them. It is important to show teens that coping with mental illness takes more than putting on a happy face.
Every fandom comes with its fair share of fanfiction, and a lot of it addresses the unspoken mental illnesses that many of our favourite characters bear. Much of the fanfiction written about CW’s Supernatural heavily features characters coping with PTSD and childhood neglect. A well known Destiel (Dean Winchester/Castiel) fic, Painted Angels, is a good example of this. The central plot surrounds Dean and Cas’s relationship, but throughout the story the author shows how Dean deals with his mother’s death, and having an abusive father. None of this changes his character or throws the plot off course, but it still shows a beloved character going through the same struggles as them.
No matter the fandom, you can probably find a fanfic that delves into the mental burdens our favourite characters carry. As amazing as it is to see this other side of them, it is troubling that this aspect is only visible in fanfiction. Kids, teens, and adults alike are drawing strength and inspiration from these imagined people, and it is for this reason that mental illness needs to be shown in mainstream media. It is essential to show that you don’t have to go through life unscathed, that things can get hard, and you may not ever truly recover. And who better to learn it from than our favourite characters?