By Shay Siegel
The importance of learning about mental health and debunking the stigmas that come along with it has been expressed more and more in recent years. Mental illness is a valid struggle in the everyday lives of people from all different backgrounds and circumstances—it does not discriminate. Representation of mental health is especially important for teenagers who already deal with issues of identity and belonging simply as part of growing up and all the external pressures they are exposed to. Art and entertainment forms that explore mental health and real societal issues are contributing to these discussions.
These ten shows and movies (some of which are based on wonderful books) have explored mental illness in one way or another and shed some much-needed light, helping teens realize they are not alone.
This was my favorite show when I was in high school, and it has done a great job not only shifting to keep up with current times, but it has always confronted a variety of important issues that teens face. I usually think of Degrassi: The Next Generation, because that’s the segment of the show I grew up with, but the new version Degrassi: The Next Class with a different cast for a new generation is exactly what the show has always been about, while keeping up with the current atmosphere. Degrassi consists of a big cast, which is one of the things to love about it and shows a multitude of characters that struggle with different issues, both external and internal. Mental health has always been portrayed in Degrassi and manifested in many ways, from eating disorders, to self-harm and suicide, to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, to identity issues, peer pressure, sexual assault, substance abuse, and so much more. The show is confronting, and it raises awareness and leads to deeper thinking and conversation-starting in a helpful and positive way. Degrassi is my number one pick for a series that shows all the raw and relatable issues teens face, especially mental illness.
2. 13 Reasons Why
I loved the book 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, so naturally I was excited when it was made into a series. I know it has received a ton of backlash and been accused of glorifying suicide, and yes, the show may definitely be triggering and problematic in areas. There are many positives to be gleaned as well, though. The story confronts the very ugly side of suicide and the lasting effects of trauma like sexual assault and bullying on the psyche. It’s not meant to be comfortable because these issues are uncomfortable, and the show can help in processing tough topics. The story provides encouragement to think about how our actions affect others and how we can’t know what others are going through. And regardless of whether the show is hated or loved, it has absolutely started important conversations and raised suicide awareness.
3. All the Bright Places
I actually have not yet read the book by Jennifer Niven, but I watched the movie recently and thought it was a really realistic, while also heart-wrenching, take on depression. It’s helpful for teens to see two characters with different past traumas coping in different ways, and the idea expressed that some are able to heal while others still struggle. There is no one set of symptoms when an individual has depression and that was clearly portrayed in this film. The message of hope to find the bright places everywhere even when we might not feel like one of those places within ourselves is beautiful.
4. Looking for Alaska
Looking for Alaska is an adapted series based on John Green’s popular novel from 2005, which I also loved, but the series expands upon the book and incorporates updated ideas and messages that fit our current times and conversations, especially those that address mental health. The story unfolds as a mystery, and at times it’s lighter and a fun coming-of-age tale, but it’s so much deeper as it progresses, especially as the later episodes take on a more ominous tone and Alaska’s inner struggles become clearer. This is another instance of not truly knowing what another person is going through, especially when they don’t reach out for help in a direct way. This is unfortunately a reality of mental illness and one of the reasons is that those struggling don’t fully understand it themselves. The open-endedness of the story is realistic because that’s exactly how life is—nothing gets wrapped up neatly, but we learn about others and ourselves along the way.
5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
This is also one of my favorite books by Stephen Chbosky, and the movie is every bit as emotional. Charlie is an incredibly realistic character. His feelings of loneliness while continuing on day to day with hope are so accurate and relatable for any teen who has ever felt like an outcast. The deeper past issues that we find out he has repressed are heartbreaking, but I think the story does a great job in portraying that past trauma, while contributing to his current situation, might also not have necessarily created it because there are many layers to mental illness and there is no off button once a “reason” is realized.
6. It’s Kind of a Funny Story
This movie is based on the YA novel by Ned Vizzini. We get a look into many of the patients’ lives over the course of a few days in a psychiatric hospital, while Craig, the male lead, learns about himself and his circumstances, ultimately taking steps to heal. One of the most positive messages of the story is that Craig takes it upon himself to seek help, which many (or most) don’t feel acceptable doing. This is so important for teens to see. The idea that others can’t save us, and we have to build our own lives and not look to others to make it all better for us is also done well. The author of the book, Ned Vizzini, committed suicide, but he left a message of hope in allowing Craig to work through his struggles and show readers and viewers what goes on in the mind of someone struggling so deeply in hopes that those who need it may seek help.
7. Eighth Grade
This movie was cringe-worthy at times, which was effective because that’s exactly what this time of life is like. If you feel awkward watching someone, just imagine how elevated those feelings are for them on the inside. Kayla, the thirteen-year-old protagonist, is riddled with worry and anxiety about her every decision and encounter, and many of the times her fears are realized, which I think we all can agree escalates anxiety. It was an accurate and upsetting portrayal of what goes on both inside and outside during this impactful transition in life, maybe not for every single teen but certainly for the ones who feel that specific emotional turmoil.
8. To the Bone
This was an interesting take on how mental illness manifests in eating disorders. The idea of knowing how damaging your behavior is but also not knowing how to stop it or do anything different, or even just not wanting to, is relatable to anyone who struggles with mental illness whether it be an eating disorder or otherwise. This film has also been criticized for misrepresenting sensitive subject matter, but again, it has helped start conversations and it has definitely expressed an important message that recovery is not a straight line.
9. The Edge of Seventeen
I loved this movie, and one of the best things about it is how “normal” Nadine’s mental health issues are treated. Her mental illness is not necessarily what the movie is about, but a driving force behind her as a character, and an accurate portrayal of depression for one unique person, since everyone experiences it differently. Although her struggles may be heightened by exterior circumstances and “being a teen” the way she views herself and the world are real and heartbreaking, and although she might not be in imminent danger she is suffering, nonetheless. The movie is also quite funny in parts! The balance of humor and despair work to provide light to all the darkness that exists.
This new series is extremely uncensored, raw, and even shocking, but it definitely captures the issues and pressures of being a teen in this current climate. A realistic and well-done takeaway from the series is how mental illness can completely take over and suffocate a person, even bringing on a terrible feeling of boredom and monotony. Rue, the main character, struggles with addiction, which first became an issue when she was looking for a way to combat her host of mental illnesses, and of course gives her yet another issue to struggle with when she is already in severe pain, if from nothing else then from being born into this world. The uncomfortable honesty in Euphoria is executed with precision and is a look at mental illness, while it has always existed, now in the new generation.
Shay Siegel is a freelance writer, poet, and editor. Her debut YA novel, Fractured, is available now. For more information, visit shaysiegel.com, or connect with Siegel on Facebook, Instagram and Goodreads.