Speak Your Mind: Depictions of mental health in pop culture spark discussion

Haley Fuller and Sammi Boas

Sammi Boas: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Sammi Boas.

Haley Fuller: And I’m Haley Fuller. Welcome to “Speak Your Mind,” a bimonthly podcast dedicated to discussing mental health and self-care on Northwestern’s campus. Our goal is to facilitate a conversation about mental health that goes in-depth about what students are really experiencing and try to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health.

Sammi Boas: The intersections of media and mental health are always important, but with the release of the first half of BoJack Horseman season 6, a show that explores various aspects of mental illness, we thought it was timely to discuss our thoughts on the subject. 

Haley Fuller: There are some spoilers for the new season of BoJack Horseman in this episode, so spoiler alert. We also want to give you a brief heads up that this episode contains material that may be triggering to some listeners, particularly surrounding experiences with mental illness, particularly mentions of suicide as well as anxiety and depression. While we’d love to have you listen, please put your own mental health and well-being first.

Sammi Boas: We first talked to Communication first-year Clay Lawhead to hear his opinions on how the media portrays mental illness. 

Clay Lawhead: My name is Clay Lawhead, I am majoring in theater and I am 19 years old. 

Haley Fuller: What are your thoughts on how mental health or mental illness are portrayed in the media?

Clay Lawhead: I think mental health is so tricky to tackle on a wide-scale basis. You can’t really tackle mental health as just being in one box, you know. Everyone has different ways of handling their mental health. I have a big problem with mental health in regards to gun violence. They just kind of put the blame of gun violence and the victims onto the mental health of the perpetrator without going for the real issue, which is the guns themselves, but that’s a whole different political story. I think that in general mental health is usually just put in a box. 

Haley Fuller: Although mental health depictions in the media may seem inconsequential, a study conducted by the National Mental Health Association in the US in 1997 showed that 70 percent of individuals get their information about people who deal with mental illness through television. As of 2006, one-fifth of prime-time shows depict some aspect of mental health. These statistics show how negative, and positive, representations of mental health can have a large impact on the public. 

Sammi Boas: Haley and I decided to have a conversation about recent references to mental health in pop culture. 

Haley Fuller: So Sammi, what are your thoughts on how mental health or mental illness are portrayed in the media?

Sammi Boas: I think in general, different types of media have been better about showing a more accurate depiction of mental health. I know recently there have been new seasons of shows that do depict mental health in a more nuanced way. About a week and a half ago, the first part of BoJack Horseman season six was released. As a show, BoJack Horseman has definitely addressed a lot of different topics regarding mental health. Even though this season was maybe less direct than in previous seasons regarding mental health, there are still definitely themes that relate to it.

For instance, the last episode of the part one of the season deals heavily with the mental effects of sexual assault on its victims and the post-traumatic stress disorder that comes from these traumatic experiences, which I think is interesting to deal with in a television show focused on Hollywood because you kind of see depictions of PTSD in films related to war and historical events, but it was interesting seeing that in a different way. One thing that I really liked about the season was that it addressed being able to reach out for help. One of the characters has been dealing with depression and realizes that she needs help and tries medicine to help with her depression. It was interesting to see that because I think it’s a very relevant theme for a lot of people who have had to take medicine, that fear of losing yourself and losing a part of who you are because the medicine changes your brain chemistry in a way. As through the character in the show it can lead you to gain weight, it can have physical health effects too and for a lot of people that’s really scary. What depiction of mental health in the media has stood out to you recently?

Haley Fuller: So I guess at this point, it’s not super recent, but I am a big fan of John Green’s book “Turtles All The Way Down” that came out a few years ago. I thought it was really interesting to see a depiction of OCD because so rarely is that a kind of mental illness that’s shown in the media. Usually it’s depression or anxiety, occasionally you’ll see the effects of sexual assault such as PTSD. But I thought it was really interesting that John Green covered it and that so much of it was based from his own experience. I also thought it really put it into words people could understand. People who didn’t necessarily understand experiences before could then read it and have a better sense of empathy as to how to help friends and family who have anxiety or OCD. Have there been any other depictions of mental health or mental illness in the media in any form, that have stood out to you?

Sammi Boas: Yeah, so another positive example is actually in a song. AJR released a song called “Karma” off of their album Neotheater. At first when I listened to this song, it was just kind of this is a really catchy upbeat song, but by the end of it, I heard a mention of therapy, so in my head I just kind of thought, ‘What is this? What’s going on here?’ so then I went back and looked at the lyrics and it’s a really interesting song. The song itself is a conversation between what’s led to believe the lead singer and his therapist, and it’s this therapy session within the song. The lead singer talks about how he’s been going to therapy and how it’s been helping him but why isn’t he feeling better? The whole point is where is the karma; I’ve been putting in all this really good work, why am I not seeing the outcomes? I think that’s a really relatable thing for people who struggle with mental health because a lot of the times, you see people talk about ‘Okay, you get help and then it’s fine,’ but it’s not like that at all for most people. It’s you get help, and then you have ups and downs, and that’s just a really relatable thing that definitely resonated with me. Have there been any songs that have resonated with you due to their content relating to mental health?

Haley Fuller: One artist that I think has done a really good job or at least has really tried to talk about mental illness and mental health in their work is the band Fitz and The Tantrums. Their new album, “All the Feels,” that came out recently, has a lot of songs about mental health and dealing with mental illness. I actually saw them in concert over the summer and one of their songs on the album is called “I Need Help!” and before they sang it, the lead singer mentioned that he wrote it and how important it is to seek help regardless of whether you’re stressed about something or  you’re dealing with a mental illness, and help can take the form of talking to a friend or family member or going to therapy, and how important it is to take care of yourself and that you’re not being weak, you’re actually just being really strong and doing a good thing by trying to get help in whatever form it takes. So I thought that was really awesome, it really resonated with me. The song is super upbeat, it’s a great one to listen to in the morning or when you’re in a state where you’re super stressed.

I do have a hot take on Shawn Mendes’s song “In My Blood.” I realize that a lot of people like it, and I see why the message can be empowering for some people. He opened up about his experience with anxiety when he came out with the song, which I think is great and the more celebrities that talk about it leads to shattering the stigma surrounding mental health, but I think some of the lyrics in the song, at least in my opinion, are kind of problematic. One of the parts that repeats throughout is ‘Sometimes I feel like giving up / But I just can’t / It isn’t in my blood,’ which I find problematic because some days people just can’t get themselves to leave their anxiety or their depression or their negative feelings behind, and it does kind of take over for a while and it doesn’t make anyone any weaker for doing so. So while some people might be able to take the song as an inspiration to not give up or give in to anything they’re struggling with, I personally think it’s an affront to people who maybe can’t get themselves to do that. And I don’t think that’s fair to people who are trying really, really hard to do their best or just get through the day are almost being told through this really popular song that was on the radio all the time that they should just be able to get over it, which isn’t possible for a lot of people.

Sammi Boas: I definitely get how you can interpret that song in that way, I’ve never thought about it like that before. After listening to what you’re saying, my kind of thought is that I think the whole giving up thing, I interpreted it honestly to the furthest extreme of giving up on your life, and I think that meaning is a good message of not ending it all, but I feel like it isn’t clear whether the lyric in the song just addresses giving up for the day. People do need to take breaks and sometimes they need to take a pause; everyone needs to do that.

Haley Fuller: Exactly, and honestly if it’s a source of inspiration to you, if it helps you, I think that’s fantastic, get that wherever you can because it’s something that I think we really lack. That was just my personal interpretation of it.

Sammi Boas: That’s all we have today for “Speak Your Mind.” I’m Sammi Boas, 

Haley Fuller: And I’m Haley Fuller. Thanks for listening!