Television and movies have always had the immense power to bring life to all types of stories. Writers, directors and producers are paid substantial sums of money to make viewers feel a connection to the story they’re telling. But the line between movie magic and real life can be blurred.
Along with many other Netflix users, I binge watched the television series “13 Reasons Why” when it was released in March. The show follows the story of a teenage girl who committed suicide and left 13 cassette tapes for the people that led her to believe that she was better off dead. After its release, a debate erupted on social media about whether it is right, or even necessary, to create a show that focuses on such complex issues such as depression, suicide and other mental illnesses.
College students are heavy consumers of the news and all types of media platforms. They are also top customers for streaming services, about 37 percent watch Netflix everyday. But streaming platforms aren’t properly equipped to be creating material that is accurate or authentic, especially when it comes to complex topics like suicide and depression. This is why students and viewers must be cognizant of the information being absorbed while binge watching.
No one can stop companies like Netflix, Hulu or HBO from producing whatever content they like, but college students need to understand that media companies can’t be held responsible for properly educating their audiences. Watching shows like “13 Reasons Why” and the new Netflix movie, “To the Bone,” released last week which focuses on eating disorders, can be entertaining. The plotline and characters are created to feel relatable and real – but viewers must remember that they are being fed something that is coming from the minds of writers and directors, not doctors and specialists. Although Netflix did consult mental health professionals for “13 Reasons Why,” the writers and producers went against the advice of the expert’s opinion to not show the graphic suicide of the show’s protagonist, Hannah.
Boston University has reported that there has been a large increase in the amount of college students who have come into mental health clinics for help in previous years. Although there is still a stigma towards those who have mental illnesses, students are realizing there are places they can go to receive aid, including Mental Health Services at GW. MHS received increased funding amid a University-wide focus on mental health after a string of on-campus suicides in 2014. And that’s where “13 Reasons Why” went wrong. At the end of the season, we see that Hannah, the protagonist, set her mind on committing suicide because she felt like no one understood her and that no one can help her – not even her school therapist. This is a dangerous way to tell this story because it promotes the idea that there isn’t hope or that no one wants to help people in Hannah’s situation. For students who may not be in the best place mentally, seeing those types of images and ideologies can really enhance the feeling of being alone, especially for college students adjusting to living on their own for the first time.
Viewers shouldn’t feel guilty for watching a movie like “To the Bone,” but they should know the difference between fact and fiction. Though the film has just been released on Netflix, some sites report that the movie glamorizes eating disorders, while others applaud the streaming site for being “frank” about the reality of anorexia. Regardless of what opinion viewers support, it’s still essential to know the facts and statistics. About 20 percent of female students report having or previously having an eating disorder, according to the Walden Center. And not everyone has the privilege of having a strong support system, especially people who are new to college or a new city. Shows that portray mental illnesses – such as anxiety or disordered eating – do the most harm when viewers look to the show for information instead of specialists and doctors who have received formal training.
Hollywood shows and movies about mental health issues won’t be accurate until they look at mental illness as something real and complex, rather than a plot device. I’ll watch “To the Bone” with an open-mind, but that won’t stop me from understanding that at the end of the day, Netflix is meant to entertain first, not to educate. We can’t stop Netflix, Hulu or HBO from producing the shows that they know will make money, but we do have the choice to look for the real facts and not just the information that we pay for monthly.
Renee Pineda, a junior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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