Pop Culture & Mental Health: Fiction vs Reality

Mental-Health-Awareness-Week-Logo.pngHello, everyone! This week is mental health awareness week run by the Mental Health Foundation. As this is an area I’m really passionate about both personally and as a psychology student, to do my bit I’ve decided to run a blog feature where I and guest bloggers talk about mental health related topics paired with books and/or blogging to help raise awareness. 🙂 Today I’m welcoming Hattie to the blog!

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Hello, all! My name’s Hattie, and I’m usually found writing over at The Anxious Girl’s Guide to Dating, my advice blog. I am so honored to be taking part in Blogs of a Bookaholic’s mental health week. As a fellow tea-drinker and book lover, I’m thrilled to be here. Becky is seriously so lovely, right? And while I’m a huge fan of books in general, I’m also a huge fan of open dialogue about mental health soo I think I’ve found my blogging soulmate.

Anxiety has been a constant companion of mine since childhood and depression likes to pop his head in the door every once in a while too. Mental health is one of those interesting topics that seems to be everywhere and yet still is a challenge for a lot of people to talk about. For me, my anxiety reached a tipping point when I tried to start dating in my late teens (then early twenties, then mid-twenties…I was a late bloomer). 

Feeling safe in opening up about mental health can be difficult: it leaves you vulnerable. One of the ways many of us feel less alone in our mental health challenges is by looking around us at pop culture. From music to TV to films and books, mental health is handled in a variety of ways.

You don’t have to look far in pop culture to find depictions of mental illness. However, it’s also not uncommon to see mental health handled from one angle.

A_Beautiful_Mind_Poster    The Hours Movie Poster

A character’s mental illness makes them either a genius or broken or violent or adorable. We see Nicole Kidman’s version of Virginia Woolf in The Hours as a damaged and dark character.  Russell Crowe’s mathematical performance in A Beautiful Mind shows him as an unraveling genius. One of the more prominent TV shows to explore topics of social anxiety is The Big Bang Theory. The majority of the characters on the show express a spectrum of social quirks and OCD tendencies. But when we’re introduced to Raj’s crush, Lucy, we get our first explicit introduction to someone with social anxiety. She squirms, makes adorably awkward faces, and leaps out a bathroom window while on a date. They go on a library date where all communication is done via text.

"The Love Spell Potential" -- Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) and Lucy (Kate Micucci) go on a very awkward date, on THE BIG BANG THEORY, Thursday, May 9 (8:00 – 8:31 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved

But even with this “accurate” depiction of social anxiety, there are limitations to the portrayal of the illness. TV and film can often romanticize mental illness. It leaves a sorta weird taste in my mouth. The character is still pretty one dimensional; her social anxiety is still pretty “cute.”

I’ve found that books and literature are the best way I can feel a connection with the complexity of mental illness.

Maybe it’s because reading about a mental illness provides you with the space and time and solitude to digest what is being said. When compared with TV or film,  literature tends to be rooted in a landscape of gray areas. Books in general are an excellent place to go when sharpening for empathy tools.

The first memories I have of feeling understood, of feeling like my experiences were more universal than I might have thought, were during high school English courses. We read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which follows a woman given “the rest cure” to solve her nervous ailments. The rest cure does nothing to improve her health and we watch our heroine unravel and lose herself. It’s still one of my favorite pieces of writing and is still one of the best representations of mental health I’ve come across.

The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins 27786-0 MECH ][.indd  The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

We also read The Awakening by Kate Chopin and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Both of these works explore what it means to be a young women figuring out how she fits into the world while also grappling with psychological challenges. The characters are multi-dimensional, flawed, beautiful, and their heartache is wildly universal.

Great literature has the ability to make us feel less alone. To feel understood. And to learn more about ourselves while reading about the experiences of others.

While it’s always fun to see the different ways TV and film portray mental illness, I recommend opening up a book if you really want to feel seen. That way, when depression stops by and decides to stay for a while, you can wink and say “I’ve read all about you.”

Do you find that books are more realistic in their portrayal of mental illnesses than film or TV? Let me know in the comments!


Hattie C. Cooper is a writer living in Seattle. She believes in exploring nature, self-fulfillment, and ghosts. Hattie is the author of The Anxious Girl’s Guide to Dating and Thriving with Social Anxiety. www.hattiecooper.com


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Thanks so much for sharing, Hattie! I agree that film and TV can be quite rigid in its portrayal of mental illness, often falling back on stereotypes. I think that’s where novels really come into their own because you can truly step into another person’s shoes rather than only skimming the surface!

Please do also make sure you check out Hattie’s blog guys, her posts on anxiety are amazing!

8 thoughts on “Pop Culture & Mental Health: Fiction vs Reality

  1. I don’t have mental illness myself but have friends who do. And I think the limitation of film you have to show everything in action while books can really get to the core of someone’s thoughts and feelings. I keep meaning to read The Bell Jar, I’ve been hearing a lot of great things.

    • I completely agree with you (Love you blog name by the way!) that film can be so limiting with topics like this, whereas with a book you can really get into someone’s head. I also think that Hollywood is so intent on making the BIG impact for the shock factor that these negative stereotypes start to emerge!

  2. It’s always easier to step back in a book and go into more detail. The “moving image” never gives you that option unless you’re doing an adaptation of a play (The asides of Shakespeare are a great example.) In a moving image, it’s all surfaces…

    • I agree! With a book, you can really get into the deepest recesses of someone’s head, and although moving pictures have come a long way with their techniques which is unbelievably impressive, it still doesn’t quite compare to a book. 🙂

  3. I loved this post! It’s something I’ve never really thought about before, but it’s very true. Literature is able to access places that other mediums can’t. Literature doesn’t pose as many restrictions and really allows the reader’s imagination to harness the words.

    The Yellow Wallpaper is one of my absolute favourite pieces of writing and I wholeheartedly urge everybody to read it. I really need to get around to The Awakening and The Bell Jar!

    • Yay, I’m so glad! It was something I hadn’t really thought about before either, I tend to bundle books, films and TVs portrayal of mental health into one basket so it’s interesting to compare mediums. 🙂

      I remember that your review of The Yellow Wallpaper made me want to pick it up straight away! (I still haven’t, whoops).

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