All Was Well: How Popular Media Renders Mental Illness Invisible

Fanfiction is often the only media that explicitly depicts mental illness.

dev-benjamin-219184 | Dev Benjamin

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?

About Zoe LeBoeuf (1 Article)
Zoe is a young aspiring writer and can often be found holed up in a library or bookstore.

12 Comments on All Was Well: How Popular Media Renders Mental Illness Invisible

  1. There be SPOILERS down below!!

    The first time I ever encountered a character or a story that actually touched on something similar to my own experience with mental illness was in Beyond Two Souls and how the main character reacted to things. Even the end, when you can pick whether to go on living, or to die and go to “heaven,” was amazing and allowed me the choice I’ve desperately wanted to be able to make ever since I even believed in a “heaven.” (I don’t now, but if I had proof of one, suicidal or not, it would be comforting to know the option was there.)

    I’ve always thought that when I would be so stressed out by everything that I would just bawl and be unable to stop was a weakness (doesn’t help I was told that as a kid) or that my emotions were a burden on other people (I’d cry and be ignored by my parents, except for one time and then never again, always wondering what I’d done “right” that one time to get help – I still very much struggle with this), that when I saw her sobbing over something that happened to her (and to me), and doing it the way I always have, it enabled me, for the first time in 30 years, to see that maybe I wasn’t weak. Maybe that’s just the right response to extreme suffering.

    It was the first time I ever thought, “Hey, maybe I should cut me some slack.” It was SO IMPORTANT.

    I was also very glad Ellen Page played her. I got to see a real-life lesbian that I could actually relate to, and it lead me into the wonderful world of Butch, and these things may have saved my life and given me a future.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I agree that mental illness is underrepresented. Sadly the little representation it seems to get minimises it as something ‘everyone has’ and that it is therefor normal.

  3. love your insightful post!

  4. Oh well, Harry was a bit ill in the end. The manner in which he chose to name his kids proves it. No sane person would have named them in such a way. So… we still have some hope, right?

  5. Thank you – I really appreciate this thoughtful post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: