Content warning: depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, disordered eating, self-harm, sexual assault, generational trauma
With the latest season of 13 Reasons Why having been released on Netflix in August, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that there are no media that talk about mental health in a way that is both accurate and sensitive. In mainstream media, mental illnesses, trauma, and substance use disorders are romanticized, sensationalized, and misrepresented.
For people that experience these things as part of our lived realities, it can begin to feel like we will never see ourselves on television or listen to a song that says what’s in our heads. A lack of realistic representation of mental illness in media can make us feel isolated when we seek help from others with similar struggles. Fortunately, there are some people who are doing it right. We decided to write this article to give you a list of media that we feel represent mental illness properly. Of course, we can’t speak for all experiences, and invite readers to share their favourite media with us as well.
Depression and Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim
Sabrina Benaim is a Canadian poet, most well-known for her poem “Explaining My Depression to My Mother,” which went viral on YouTube in 2018. In Depression and Other Magic Tricks, she explains the feelings that come with depression and anxiety accurately, in a way that will make you think ah, someone gets it.
In her poem “The Loneliest Sweet Potato,” Benaim articulates a feeling that rings close to home for individuals who experience clinical depression. “In my lonely at the grocery store I practice trying to make myself feel good by pretending I’m a regular person, buying her groceries, not a very sad person trying not to cry,” it reads. The crushing feeling of trying to feel real, to be better, to just exist like everyone else, is one that isn’t often articulated in popular media.
In “So I’m Talking to Depression…” she describes depression as “this invisible bone that I caught and I can’t stop writing poems about, I mean living.” She truly hits the feeling that your mental illness can not be escaped head-on.
Dodie is a British musical artist who got her start on YouTube as Doddleoddle. As she gained popularity, Dodie began a vlog channel called Doddlevloggle and used her platform to discuss derealization/depersonalization, anxiety, depression, and other aspects of mental health.
This comes through within her songs as well. In “I Won’t Be Done,” Dodie sings “a woman with a teenage brain/Attempts to play the grownup game,” and in “When,” she sings “I’m sick of faking diary entries,/Got to get it in my head; I’ll never be sixteen again.” Dodie embodies how adulthood can feel daunting to those who feel as though they never truly lived out their teenage years due to trauma or mental illness. She also articulates how, for many people who have been suicidal in their youth, it can be terrifying to reach adulthood and realize you never made a plan to be at that point.
Dodie’s songs express how it feels to be growing up, recovering, and just surviving in a way rivalled by few other artists.
She has also released a memoir titled Secrets for the Mad, which further explores her experiences with depersonalization/derealization, depression, anxiety, and disordered eating.
Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow
Traumatized by her past, Charlie Davis laboriously learns to cope with her mental health issues in Kathleen Glasgow’s first novel. Tackling harsh realities such as self-harm, living on the streets, hospitalization, disassociation, drug abuse, suicide, and sexual abuse, Glasgow has no qualms portraying mental illness as it really is – painful, unstable, and longstanding.
Self-harm, the most prominent of Charlie’s struggles, is an issue often misrepresented and even glorified by mainstream media. Describing Charlie’s battle with cutting from
the beginning to her recovery, Glasgow not only forces the reader to understand her psyche but offers coping skills through the voice of resident doctor Casper. Through 400 pages of raw truths, Girl in Pieces portrays a unique and compelling coming-of-age story. As Charlie’s friend Louisa writes in her journal: “People should know about us. Girls who write their pain on their bodies.”
The Road Within
Director Glen Wells creates a satirical yet authentic portrait of three young people suffering from life-altering mental illnesses in his 2014 movie The Road Within. The story of the escapist road trip of a young man with Tourette’s syndrome, his unwilling roommate with OCD, and a woman with anorexia is imbued with dark humour. Trying to outrun their parents and doctors from a recovery center while simultaneously running towards the ocean, all three protagonists grapple with their mental illness while both overcoming and being defeated by their struggles.
A fresh and raw approach to portraying mental illness in media, Wells moves away from the typical “struggle-recovery” story to show that many people still have a long way to go on the road to recovery.
Elwing Su’o’ng Gonzalez
A popular Instagram artist known as @elwingbling, Gonzalez addresses the intersections of mental illness, generational trauma, and colonialism. In the culture of whitewashed “self-care” art on Instagram, her work fills an important void: art that decolonizes mental health care and awareness.
“Drug and alcohol addiction are treated as health issues for some/But as criminal issues for others”
Through her work, Gonzalez addresses the reality of how POC experience mental health care. “Drug and alcohol addiction are treated as health issues for some/But as criminal issues for others,” one of her pieces states. She calls her followers to action in the caption: “rethink who you have sympathy for and why.” In another piece, she says “fact: you cannot have or treat an illness unless it is government approved,” continuing to address the rampant racism that is present in the North American healthcare system.
In another piece, she explores the links between colonialism and trauma. “The village/That raised me/ Was damaged/Damaged me/So I must work/To heal/My village/To heal/Myself,” it reads. In another caption, she explains “war and dislocation and loss were a central part of the family narrative, with abuse and resentment and violence always just below the surface […] it made me a very angry and deeply sad teenager and adult […] until I saw my family as simply made up of people – injured people who were denied many of the tools and opportunities they needed to break away from the shadows of their multiple traumas and be free to live and love.” Her art addresses how the mental health care system in North America consistently disadvantages marginalized groups, as well as how institutional discrimination is deeply intertwined with mental illness and trauma.