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opinion

Pop culture should show realistic depictions of mental illness



"Be More Chill," a musical based on a book by Ned Vizzini, is getting an off-Broadway debut. The show follows a character with anxiety who takes a pill in order to fit in and seem more cool. It exists in a new wave of popular musicals featuring mentally ill characters, such as "Dear Evan Hansen," which follows in the footsteps of Pulitzer Prize-winning "Next to Normal." With these shows and other forms of popular media representing people with mental illness, it is time society reanalyze the way mental illnesses are treated in the media.

The show has an extremely large number of fans when it comes to musical theatre. While musicals tend to attract many fans, the fans do not tend to form fandoms in the same way that television shows or movies do. "Be More Chill" defies this, having the second biggest Tumblr fandom of any musical, outside of "Hamilton," even though it has never had a Broadway run. This show has found itself in the spotlight, bringing its mental illness narrative with it.

The show features a main character with anxiety, and has another character with anxiety as well, who sings a song, “Michael in the Bathroom” about having a mental breakdown at a party.  It’s a refreshingly realistic take on what it feels like to have anxiety.

Other popular portrayals of mental illness tend to fall to the sides of either romanticization or demonization. Essentially, either characters are portrayed as super cool or interesting solely because of their mental illness, or they shown t o be scary and villainized because of it.

A perfect example of romanticization can be seen in the recent Netflix series "13 Reasons Why," in which the main character Hannah Baker suffers from depression, but her subsequent suicide is portrayed in alarmingly romanticized detail, which goes against the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s media guidelines.

On the other hand, demonization of mental illness like dissociative identity disorder is seen in many popular horror movies, using similar tropes in classic favorites like "Psycho" or contemporary critically acclaimed horror films like "Split."

Even if specific portrayals of mental illness do not necessarily fall into this binary, they still often rely on harmful tropes. For example, a character could have a mental illness for one episode, and then have it magically cured by the next, such as Miranda from "Lizzie McGuire" who had an eating disorder for one episode.  

 Perhaps the character has been diagnosed with depression and resents therapy or medication, which often ostracizes and confuses young viewers with depression who may be genuinely seeking help.

With more attention on these narratives that treat the subject matter respectfully, such as the upcoming off-Broadway run of "Be More Chill," stories about those with mental illness are being pushed to the forefront, so hopefully their stories will start being told in a realistic way.

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