“Mental Health in Entertainment: Helpful or Harmful?”

By: Abbie Millman


We’ve all been at that point where we're clearly in denial about the fact that we may or may not have stayed up all night binging the latest Netflix Original. Our mantra became, “Just one more episode!” as hours flew by completely unbeknownst to us. Over the years, many shows have been placed in the hot seat as this content cycle continues with the rotation of new, popular shows. Interestingly enough, one thing to take into consideration is how all of these recent hits have a similar theme. From “13 Reasons Why” and “Insatiable” to “Dear Evan Hansen” and “To the Bone”, an overwhelming amount of controversy has been stirred up thanks to one common factor: mental health.


While teenagers treated these shows as any binge worthy obsession, the majority of adult audiences' initial reactions appeared to be fiercely negative. Many parents have stressed their disapproval, expressing that these shows are extremely “out there” in terms of providing clear examples of mental health issues and their effects. In fact, before the Netflix original “Insatiable” even aired, a petition was created in hopes that Netflix would discard the show entirely. Behind the signatures were a number of accusations that the show was fatphobic, homophobic, and, overall, just problematic. It’s hard to blame them: the very fact that one of the episodes of “Insatiable” is titled “Skinny is Magic” demonstrates that some aspects of the show can easily be seen as offensive.


There have even been incidents in which a show leaves its viewers mentally and emotionally devastated. For example, the infamous “13 Reasons Why” initiated conversation, but it also resulted in harmful action. Considering the show tackles a wide array of mental health issues, one would assume that this would help viewers, since it showed that they are not alone in their suffering. Instead, the show was followed by a chain of tragic suicides from youth who decided they had felt enough pain after watching the show. 


It seems as though the protagonist Hannah Baker set an example in her drama-filled suicide, as opposed to having warned others of the consequences. Instead of basing the discussion on how her suicide should have been prevented, nearly every character (aside from her parents and her love interest) repressed Hannah’s memory as they tried to hide their own flawed actions. “13 Reasons Why” portrayed a typical high school drama and, by extension, avoided the larger and more complex discussion. During the initial release of Hannah’s story around April 2017, this was particularly evident, as the suicide rate among ages 10-17 years old increased by a terrifying thirty percent. This shocking statistic may certainly weigh in on the verdict of how much effect television has on today’s youth, especially when it comes to mental health.


Perhaps the very place that “13 Reasons Why” went wrong was the fact that production showed no options of treatment for Hannah Baker, who saw her life falling apart right before her eyes. As a result of the neglect shown towards Hannah, her life in the show ended in a very graphic suicide, which Netflix was eventually forced to remove from the show. Despite the demands from parents for an ending to the production, “13 Reasons Why” went on to have another four seasons, which begs the question, is there any successful show that portay’s mental health well?


“Dear Evan Hansen” might be the answer. While audiences have spared no expense into sharing their opinion of “Insatiable” and “13 Reasons Why”, those same viewers encourage productions such as “Dear Evan Hansen”, which faces topics of suicide, anxiety, and depression. 


This is because writers of “Dear Evan Hansen” chose to take a different approach than most Netflix Originals. They created relatable characters, put their characters in everyday teenager situations, and demonstrated how environmental factors, such as having a single parent, can affect anyone’s well-being. On top of that, the element of music was incorporated into the show (as a Broadway musical), which was certainly the cherry on top. Undeniably catchy songs such as “Waving Through a Window”, “Requiem”, and “Anybody Have a Map?” present different strains on mental health through intricate and meaningful lyrics. Fans’ long lasting devotion to the musical might be proof that entertainment focused on mental health can have a positive impact on viewers when executed correctly and thoughtfully.


Additionally, many other shows have also been finding ways to subtly incorporate the topic of mental health. Take for instance the immensely popular show—15 seasons long—“Supernatural”. Though many began watching to see the monster-fighting action, they stayed because of the unexpected emotional roller coaster filled with the mental health issues of protagonists Sam and Dean Winchester. By the time viewers start to give in to the “Supernatural” addiction, they will have already witnessed a myriad of examples for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more.


The show’s motto—“Always keep fighting”—has helped many viewers’ mental states and their overall well-being. From overcoming suicidal habits and thoughts to giving someone the strength they need to move on from an abusive past, “Supernatural” has proved that not every struggle must be dynamic in order to be significant.


So if some shows do it right, why can’t others? The pattern of backlash towards many shows that have attempted to address mental health could very well be a reflection of lack of research, care, and sensitivity. When carefully approached, mental health placed in the spotlight of entertainment can be beneficial and, even, life changing. Productions like “Supernatural” and “Dear Evan Hansen” can truly be a necessary resource for anyone struggling with similar mental health issues. Despite shows such as “13 Reasons Why” and “Insatiable”, hopping on Netflix can help teenagers feel a little less alone in the large world we live in. 


Although it's been a bumpy ride, day by day people are beginning to realize how effective these shows can be, making them necessary in today’s world.



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Sources

Bradley, Laura. “In the Month After 13 Reasons Why Premiered, Teen Suicide Increased.” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 30 Apr. 2019, www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/04/13-reasons-why-teen-suicide-rates-study.


Cagle, Tess. “Supernatural's Mental Health Support Network Is Saving Lives.” The Daily Dot, 11 Oct. 2017, www.dailydot.com/irl/supernatural-support-network/.


Fox News, Anonymous. “Families Blame '13 Reasons Why' for 2 Teens' Suicides.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 27 June 2017, www.foxnews.com/health/families-blame-13-reasons-why-for-2-teens-suicides.


Weiner, Zoë “Here Are All the Reactions to ‘Insatiable," One of Netflix's Most Controversial Shows Ever.” Teen Vogue, Teen Vogue, 16 Aug. 2018, www.teenvogue.com/story/viewers-react-to-insatiable-netflix-controversy.


Yandoli, Krystie Lee. “The Suicide Edit In ‘13 Reasons Why’ Is ‘Too Little, Too Late’ For This Mom Whose Daughter Killed Herself.” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed News, 21 July 2019, www.buzzfeednews.com/article/krystieyandoli/13-reasons-why-suicide-mom-daughter-netflix-cut-scene.



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