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Is mental illness ‘glamorised’ by modern media?

Posted on: March 20, 2024

Whether it’s on TikTok or Tumblr, Netflix or breakfast TV, there has been a shift in how mental health is portrayed in the modern media in recent years. Does the media glorify mental illness and make the problem worse or open up conversations and encourage more people to seek help? Sarah Harrop explores the issues.

Campaigns to raise awareness

Over the past 15 years, countless campaigns have aimed to destigmatize and reduce discrimination against people with mental health disorders and spread general awareness of mental health issues. Mental health awareness days pepper the calendar from February (e.g. National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Children’s Mental Health Week) to October (e.g. World Mental Health Day, Depression and Mental Health Screening Month). What is more, Prince William has even got in on the act with his own mental health documentary.

The main message of these many campaigns over the past decade or more has been that some mental illnesses can be relatively common and that discrimination and exclusion can affect people in ways that can be worse than the disorder itself.

Reflecting on one such campaign, Time to Change, which was run by the charity Mind, Brian Dow, Deputy CEO of the Rethink Mental Illness charity believes that it has brought about huge positive change in the UK by getting more people talking about mental health issues and making them less of a taboo:

“When the campaign first started, it was routine for people to openly acknowledge they would not be prepared to have someone who was mentally unwell in their social circle, much less to work or even live next door to someone experiencing a serious mental health illness. Now, it seems barely a day goes by without a high-profile person speaking openly about their mental health problems,” he says.

 “It created the confidence among the public to talk about mental health, and arguably it helped celebrities both in the UK and across the world open up about their own mental health challenges.”

The dark side of social media

The benefits of being able to talk more openly about mental illnesses without fear of stigmatisation are undisputed. But according to some psychologists, many mental health campaigns have overlooked the role played by the media.

Dr Rola Jadayel and Dr Karim Medlej from the University of Balamand are authors of a 2018 research paper exploring whether there is a ‘glamorous attraction’ to mental disorders on social media. They say that “openness in mental health issues can be misleading and in some cases manipulative, thus leading to more complex disorders in some cases.”

Their work builds on earlier 2015 research by Dr Emily Tanner, which has shown that social media has played a significant role in glamorising mental health disorders. Dr Tanner has shown that there is a “disturbing sub-culture on Instagram in which young people are sharing messages which promote dangerous (even deadly) behaviours.”

Examples of the ‘romanticisation’ of mental illness she has turned up in her research include the sharing of images which idealise suicide and depression. Others include encouraging eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia through so-called “thinspo” or “thinspiration” images of extremely skinny bodies – a trend encouraging people to take part in extreme dieting which involve self-starving and self-induced vomiting.

These images “collectively serve to promote debilitating mental health issues and almost certainly encourage young people who have not yet engaged in these behaviours to try them as a means to cope with issues in their own lives,” she says.

“Being anorexic is now foreseen as being in control, anxiety disorders are being portrayed as cute, and depression is seen to reflect intellect and depth. The problem is snowballing, and since there is little control over what is being posted, such ideas have created tribes that share and promote a fake image of some very serious and delicate mental health issues,” add Drs Jadayel and Medlej.

Romanticised TV portrayals of mental health issues

Glamourised views of mental health issues are not confined to social media. For example, Netflix’s series ‘13 Reasons Why’ has been criticised for its portrayal of mental illness and the potential impact it may have had on young people. In the show, the main character, an American teenager at high school, records 13 audio tapes before her suicide explaining the reasons why she has decided to take her own life.

Mental health professionals working in suicide prevention found its depiction of suicide to be inaccurate and potentially dangerous, according to a piece in Self magazine. For example, the plot conflated suicide with a teenage revenge fantasy of the main character killing herself to get back at people who had harmed her. The reality seen in clinical practice is that someone considering suicide typically feels more hopeless and burdensome than vengeful, explains Dr John Ackerman, the coordinator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Center for Suicide Prevention and Research.

Another storyline that experts took issue with was the protagonist’s narrative from beyond the grave, which sends the dangerous message to teenagers that suicide is a way for someone who is suffering to gain agency.

Furthermore, not all mental health conditions are treated equally on screen. Jenni Regan, Senior Media Advisor at the charity Mind works with the media to encourage realistic, accurate and sensitive portrayals of mental health. She says that while depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder are starting to be treated with sympathy and understanding on screen, when schizophrenia and personality disorders are covered it’s usually in connection to violence. This is a misrepresentation because the evidence shows that people with mental health problems are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.

What can be done to protect young people?

Social media is a rapidly evolving field and it can be hard for parents and older generations to keep up with the influence and effects it is having on young people. Mental health professionals are similarly in the dark about emerging threats coming from social media platforms.

Jadayel and Medlej’s research suggests that many teenagers and young adults now see mental disorders as relatable, normal and desirable, while those living with mental health disorders might be under the false impression that what they are experiencing is normal and common. They underline the importance of personal, real-life communication in all matters related to mental health disorders.

“The glamorization of mental health disorders, among others, is somewhat irreversible; and most probably still evolving,” Jadayel and Medlej wrote. “Thus, this work implies that we might be stepping into a new era in which mental health issues, imposed by the media, are being redefined and, therefore, should be addressed.”

Some possible ways to protect young people from potentially harmful online content could include:

  • automated tools to recognise and remove self-harm and suicide content from Instagram 
  • software that is trained by machine-learning techniques to block inappropriate scenes including violence and nudity in real-time, such as SafeToWatch
  • teaching children and teenagers “digital resistance” so that when they inevitably come across inappropriate content they are able to view it more critically.


“Parents should have frank conversations about the types of content kids might encounter online and teach them ways to protect themselves,” explains Dr Linda Papadopoulos, a psychologist working with the Internet Matters safety non-profit, in a BBC article

Discover a new career in psychology

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You’ll develop the specialist knowledge and professional skills of mental health practitioners, from clinical and counselling psychology to psychology of learning and research methods and statistics. Along the way you’ll explore relevant case studies across key areas including clinical psychology and mental health online. You will also gain a comprehensive knowledge base in other psychological disciplines, relating to historical and contemporary approaches to understanding a wide range of human behaviour. Find out more

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