The Power of Representation
Updated: Jan 30, 2021
By Elliot Mears
‘Authentic portrayals of mental illness in media is valuable, both as a means of education and to provide solace to those struggling’
When you’re living with a mental illness you can easily feel alone, like no one understands what you’re going through, like an outsider or a freak. Accurate portrayals of mental health problems can make a significant impact when it comes to combating this - characters with similar struggles allow us to see we’re not alone, that there is hope, and that living a full life is possible.
Not long after I was diagnosed with OCD I read Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne - I cannot overstate how helpful this book was to me at the time. Like the protagonist, Evie, I was struggling with contamination OCD in particular, alongside other subtypes, as well as being a teenager and trying to lead as normal a life as possible. At a time in my life when I felt alone, crazy, afraid and confused - Am I Normal Yet? gave me reassurance that I was not alone, it gave me someone to relate to in Evie, it made me feel validated, seen and understood in a way nothing else ever had. It also showed me what learning to manage might look like and more importantly that it was possible. If you are struggling like I was with feeling alone and isolated I highly encourage you to look for some media depicting a character going through what you’re going through.
Accurate media representation of those with mental health issues doesn’t just benefit sufferers, it also serves to normalise mental illness and as a means of educating others about mental health indirectly and in an approachable way. The media we consume influences our world view, for better or for worse, unfortunately many portrayals of psychosis and similar illnesses serve to further stigmatise and villenise people with these disorders, if the public are shown a more accurate portrayal of someone going through psychosis instead of horror film after horror film perhaps the stigma wouldn’t be so pervasive.
Media can help people to empathise and understand those with mental health issues on a deeper level; reading the NHS website’s description of OCD will certainly provide useful information about its symptoms and treatments but it won’t give you a well rounded picture of what life looks like for someone living with OCD. Media can be an incredible tool, particularly for loved ones of sufferers, being able to immerse oneself in the experience of a character living with OCD as one does in Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne or Turtles All the Way Down by John Green can provide valuable insight and help one to empathise with, understand and support a loved one with OCD more effectively.
Some pieces of media I feel do a good job of covering mental illness include:
As discussed above Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne is a firm favourite of mine, it’s the first entry in a series of YA novels about teenage girls finding their way in the world and follows Evie, who suffers from OCD and is starting to return to ‘normal’ life, starting a new college and coming off of her medication following being discharged from hospital.
A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard is a YA romance novel in which the protagonist, Steffi, suffers from severe anxiety and selective mutism, her illness plays a significant role in the story but is not the sole focus. Steffi uses BSL to communicate and has done for a long time at the beginning of the book and is introduced to a deaf boy called Rhys - the book follows the story of their romance.
Pure is a Channel 4 comedy series (based on a book of the same name which I have not read so can’t comment on) about Marnie, a young woman struggling with pure-0 OCD. The show manages to be funny, especially to those of us who understand what it’s like to have such absurd thoughts but does not shy away from showing the detrimental impact her sexual intrusive thoughts have on her and her day-to-day life.
That Was When They Started to Worry by Nancy Tucker is an incredible collection of short stories following seven young women struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, BPD, disordered eating and, self harm respectively, based on interviews conducted with many young women by the author. It’s a refreshingly raw read and has a lot to say about smashing stigma and the way people with mental illnesses are treated.