On Screen: Teenagers Dealing with Mental Illness

By: Shaneika Johnson-Simms

Trigger warning: mental illness, suicide

Teenagers In The Media

Mainstream society makes it difficult to talk about issues. You’re often compared to others, your problems becoming downplayed and labelled “over dramatic”. This can be especially true when watching TV shows and films that feature teenagers. The majority of mainstream media shies away from tackling the subjects of substance, like mental illness. The addition of social media in the mix of our daily routine has been said to harm the mental health of young people. With everyone posting their high points it online it opens door wider for aggressive comparison and self-loathing.

Watching my favourite shows and films would often leave me feeling confused.

Why didn’t I have moments of happiness like them? Are all families meant to eat together around the table and talk to each other? Am I meant to have a boyfriend? Do I only soothe my sadness by eating a tub of ice cream?

The clichés kept being presented and it left me feeling more alone and weird as I grew up, especially when it came to my social life. I didn’t have that crazy group of friends or a person I could totally confide in and I slowly became overly anxious and over thought every interaction I had with people. The media I consumed began to consume me.

Mental Health

Confrontation is not something that everyone can handle. Neither is being faced with a person in a depressed state. We tend to make other people’s issues smaller to make ourselves feel better by not carrying the burden of their pain.

In Archie’s Final Project, the main character, Archie, states he will kill himself for his media project. The news is taken as gossip by students and a threat by the school, who seem to care about their reputation and attachment to Archie’s claims instead of Archie himself.

Archie’s Final Project sparked online support for teenagers experiencing what Archie dealt with. “I Am An Archie” was created to support awareness for teenage suicide. Many teenagers that saw the film connected with Archie and his issues.

The actor who played Archie, Gabriel Sunday respond to the film’s popularity by highlighting the connection so many teens feel with him.

"Here are so many ways you can connect with that character and kids always connect with him, no matter what place or what country they're in. They feel that shit that he's going through, and they're living it."

The films cult following pushed for its release on Netflix in 2016 that widen the reach of the film. Online petitions and forums have gathered teenagers from across the world that has had their lives changed by the film. With the clear sign of the popularity of Archie’s Final Project it is no surprise that a couple years later a Netflix original series focusing on suicide becomes one of the most talked about series of 2017.

Why 13 Reasons Why Is Relevant

13 Reasons Why is the voice of the generation we live in today. The fast pace rate of how news travels, hiding your emotions from your parents and failing to open up to the right people are the things I resonate with. I don’t need protagonists stressing about having perfect hair- I needed a real girl who is going through a really bad time to show me how sometimes we can’t handle what is being done to us and that is okay. We do not need to pretend to be superheros or act like others opinions do not matter because they do. I know, I’ve let other people’s stories of me crumble me before, leaving me alone in tears in my bedroom while outside I presented a tough exterior. We are only human and Hannah Baker is the advocate for letting someone know “I need help.” An advocate that I would have been lucky to have.

What Hannah didn’t do can be a lesson to us all to seek help when we need it as being honest about what you’re going through is vital. For me, it took years to let someone know the pain I went through but the moment I did I felt a huge weight leave my shoulders and I realised that I never have to hold emotions inside again.

Hannah’s emotions are ignored throughout the series as her value, set by those around her, has changed. The power that individuals have in the role of our emotions is larger than we think. As a society, we like to claim to be self defined when in all actuality it’s natural to aim to please and be accepted. Oftentimes, when not feeling accepted it’s easy to sink into a state of loneliness and negativity. As teenagers, this feeling is heightened, as our lives have no separation with school/work, personal, social all being interlinked.

With a final attempt to discuss her issues, Hannah confronts Mr Porter, the school counselor. Hannah tells him her suicidal thoughts and begins to open up about her assault. "He will be gone in a few months" is Mr. Porter's response. With no validation or empathy from Mr Porter, Hannah leaves his office. This is her final push to decide to commit suicide.

With the celebrated success of 13 Reasons Why came it’s criticisms. New Zealand has restricted the viewing of 13 Reasons Why by teenagers while Canadian schools ban all talk about it the popular Netflix series. Phyllis Alongi, clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide stated, "We feel it was done irresponsibly and don't agree with many portrayals including of Hannah's death, memorialization, and placing blame on others."

Many also believe 13 Reasons Why “glamorizes” suicide and the thought of being missed when dead. Other worries are that teenagers will be more reluctant to seek help due to the Mr Porter scene. Some view the series as a light being shone on an issue that relates to them and their struggles. Bullying, rape, neglect, loneliness are the events and feelings that give 13 Reasons Why it’s relevance. Regardless of people’s opinions of 13 Reasons Why it has successfully put mental health at the forefront of discussion with news outlets and teenagers, making it easier for those wanting to find help to do so.

Only through representation will teenagers not feel ashamed to address mental illness. If the representation is suppressed, it leaves a potential group of teenagers without a voice. 13 Reasons Why and Archie’s Final Project are representations of teenagers hurting. I believe it’s the responsibility of the media to showcase different stories about different people. I believe that education systems also have a responsibility to support more than just sport and academic achievements and programs but to support the students that need someone to talk to, who need to know they matter.

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Shaneika Johnson-Simms is a writer/director and partner at Asare Simms Film Studio. Her short films have been screened in the UK, Europe and North America. Shaneika tells narrative coming of age stories and has a passion for storytelling.