Abel Tesfaye, one of the co-creators of The Idol, has this to say about the motivation behind the controversial show: “I wanted to create a dark, twisted fairy tale about the music industry.”
For a show that, as Tesfaye puts it, intends to “piss some people off,” it certainly has managed to ruffle feathers with its tone-deaf dialogs about mental health that masquerade as bold exposés of the dark world of celebrity and fame.
“Mental illness is sexy,” one of the characters states in the pilot episode, when asked if a photoshoot where the protagonist is shown wearing a hospital band (referencing a recent mental breakdown she underwent) is guilty of “romanticizing mental illness.”
To be fair, The Idol does not claim to represent an ideal world. However, this does not excuse its irresponsible perpetuation of harmful misconceptions regarding the “appeal” of mental illness.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the artistic and creative expression of mental illness, artists must remember that, amid a mental health crisis, they have a responsibility to portray mental illness in sensitive and responsible ways.
The impact of their work extends beyond entertainment – a study published in the Journal of Health Communication found that on-screen portrayals of mental illness can significantly influence public perceptions and understanding of mental health. Therefore, it is essential to approach these portrayals with empathy, accuracy, and a commitment to destigmatization.
Here are two issues with glamorizing mental illness in pop culture that can slow us down in the fight against poor mental health.
#1. We tend to believe what we see on screen, and it can sometimes be triggering
A 2021 study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence analyzed 725 comments on the subreddit r/television that referenced the hit show Euphoria (which, incidentally, shares the same director as The Idol, Sam Levinson) and found that, despite being a fictional TV show, most individuals found the portrayal of mental illness and substance dependence to be “relatable and realistic.” The comments analyzed also revealed that viewers were sometimes triggered by the portrayal of substance use and mental illness in the show.
TV shows offer a means of escape for those who are vulnerable and allow them to relate to fictional role models, flawed and problematic as they may be. Granted, most people understand that they are watching a fictional show, but the impact that on-screen storytelling has on an individual is often subtle and subliminal.
One way to help protect your mental health when watching content that may involve toxic or unsettling portrayals of mental illness is by understanding that the real world has consequences. Despite what a fictional character undergoes on screen, no matter how realistic it may seem, your experiences as a real human being are far richer and more nuanced. The real world has real consequences and imitating the coping behaviors that are glamorized on screen — whether that’s excessive smoking or consumption of substances, risky sexual behavior, or antisocial behavior, — can only lead to negative outcomes for you.
#2. On-screen glorification of toxic coping strategies can discourage help-seeking behavior
A classic study published in Tobacco Control explains how, in the 1980s, the tobacco industry and entertainment industry recognized the mutual benefits of tobacco product placement in promoting their respective interests. Though not as blatant as it once was, this relationship continues to this day, with cigarettes and tobacco being a common imagery found in film and TV.
Another study published in Depression and Anxiety found that people who suffer from mood and anxiety disorders were significantly more likely to attempt to self-medicate to alleviate their symptoms. This self-medicating behavior can eventually meet the criteria for a substance use disorder.
On-screen depictions of self-medicating through the use of cigarettes or recreational drugs can potentially influence more vulnerable viewers to emulate this behavior in their own lives. The short-term relief of symptoms then contributes to a feedback loop where self-medication is favored over professional mental healthcare.
As a viewer who may be exposed to shows with characters who adopt unhealthy coping strategies, recognize that trying to suppress the symptoms is not a viable way to deal with your mental illness. Sooner or later, the symptoms you attempt to suppress will resurface, and you are better off trying to address the core issues you may be battling with. This will involve working with a mental health professional who is experienced in dealing with mental illnesses to come up with a holistic strategy to improve your condition.
However ironic the intention behind saying mental illness is “sexy” may be, artists and creative professionals have a responsibility to be tasteful in how mental health is represented on screen. And, viewers must educate themselves about the true impact of mental illness and attempt to deal with their own struggles in mature and healthy ways.
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