Social media is becoming rapidly accessible, especially among young children. It is no wonder that popular culture has a heavy impact on all of us, because of how quickly and conveniently new trends, information, and media spread to all of us. With the boom in conversation about mental health, we see more discourse about mental health and mental health issues in our popular culture. At this point, it becomes important for us to ask ourselves —is this popularisation of mental health positive, or is it more insidious than we realise?
What Constitutes Popular Culture?
Popular culture comprises practices, beliefs or things that are most popular among the average person in our society. It includes media (photos and videos), entertainment, trends, fashion, or frequently used terms in a culture. 
Popular culture has a strong influence on our lives through the many facets which it permeates our lives, and the diversity in which it presents itself. Due to its versatility and outreach, it can affect everyone, from children to the elderly.
Benefits of Mental Health Representation in Popular Culture
Popular Culture Raises Awareness for Mental Health Issues
Perhaps the greatest benefit for the representation of mental health in popular culture is that it raises awareness for mental health.
Influencers like Dr. Ali and Dr. Julie Smith are both clinical psychologists on Youtube and Tiktok respectively. Their outreach is massive, with close to 3 million subscribers and followers combined. Celebrities like Ariana Grande have also spoken out about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that she has experienced. The British video game development studio, Ninja Theory, produced the game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, where players can “experience” hallucinations through sound and sight. As a result, we are normalising mental health and understanding its importance.
In Singapore, the #beyondthelabel campaign has been trending due to organisations like the National Council of Social Services and Our Grandfather Story who produced videos like “A Social Experiment on Mental Health Stigma” and “Can Ask Meh?”. These videos made an impact in helping to reduce the taboo around conversations about mental health.
Popular Culture Connects People to Mental Health Resources
Popular culture is increasing knowledge about mental health resources available. Not to mention, many mental health professionals are found on social media platforms sharing about the different resources available when seeking help.  Additionally, many mental health organisations are taking advantage of social media trends and platforms, to share about their services.
For example, the #MeToo movement was created to empower women who have endured sexual violence. This movement has garnered much attention and has its own website with lessons and toolkits available to help allies of the movement and survivors.
Popular Culture Normalises Help-Seeking Behaviours
In the movie Shazam (2023), the main superhero seeks help from a doctor for mental health issues. Similarly, in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), our protagonists undergo marriage counselling. On social media platforms, we frequently see influencers who are vulnerable about their mental health disorders. For instance, Elyse Meyers, a TikTok influencer, aims to provide others a safe space to talk about mental health and therapy. Furthermore, books like “I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki” by Baek Sehee  give thorough insight into what therapy may look like, and lessons learnt through therapy. This normalises the importance of help-seeking behaviours.
Whether fictional characters or real people, individuals who are unafraid to display help-seeking behaviours can empower those who may be afraid to seek help themselves. This can help to de-stigmatise such behaviours in more individuals.
Popular Culture Creates Positive Perceptions of Mental Illness
Mental illness is often perceived as taboo, with many considering it as something “bad”. While it can negatively impact the quality of life of many individuals, certain aspects of mental health are wonderous to many of us. Shows and movies like Good Doctor (2013) celebrate the genius that comes with some mental health disorders, in this case, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In these movies, individuals who suffer from mental health disorders may sometimes be stigmatised or frowned upon for not being conventionally sociable. However, their intelligence is unparalleled.
What does this tell us? Such movies reshape common understanding of what mental illness is – from something perceived as “terrible” to something that can be “manageable”. It introduces the idea that individuals with diagnosed mental health disorders are just like us. They are capable of functioning in society, as long as we remain patient and empathetic.
Issues Arising from Mental Health Representation in Popular Culture
Lack of Representation in Popular Culture
While popular culture is moving towards greater advocacy for mental health conditions like depression, anxiety or dissociative identity disorder, the conditions discussed in popular culture remain at the tip of the iceberg.
Popular media similarly brushes past the least attractive part of mental health — the healing process. For example, shows like Hoarders (2009) have good representation of hoarding disorders. Organisation specialists and cleaners help these people with a home makeover and it seems as if a good majority of the problem is solved. However, environmental cleanliness is just the start — it is ideal for these individuals to undergo months of professional mental health help. Through therapy, they are able to be vulnerable when discussing about their hoarding mindset and learn healthier coping mechanisms. In their healing process, they may regress, taking longer to get better. These are the “uglier” aspects of mental health that popular culture consumers may not recognise. Without this representation, it results in unfair expectations for those suffering with mental health to “get better” quickly and easily.
Misrepresentation or Misinformation in Popular Culture
As much as popular culture represents certain portions of mental health, misrepresentations of mental health are abundant. Much of popular culture perpetuates stigmatising opinions present in society.  In the movie, Split (2016), the main character suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) while in Joker (2019), the main character suffers from psychopathy, schizophrenia and narcissistic personality disorder. Both are presented to be very dangerous and violent characters. In fact, a study found that a majority of characters in schizophrenia-themed movies displayed violent behaviour towards self or others.  In reality, less than 10% of crime can be attributed to such individuals suffering from schizophrenia.  A large portion of media also reflect negative reactions to the mentally ill, which viewers may learn to mimic over time . As such, misrepresentations of mental health conditions may reinforce false beliefs others have about mental health. This further alienates those with mental illnesses.
Popular Culture Perpetuates Mental Health Issues
Direct contributors to popular culture — celebrities, models, content creators and more — are often under the spotlight, making them highly vulnerable to criticism. Many celebrities have shared about the pressures they feel in their respective industries. They find themselves immersed in a “toxic” culture where substance abuse and mental illness is rampant. For example, 68% of models surveyed were found to suffer from depression, anorexia or both. They also have a lower quality of life and have been or are in fear of being sexually assaulted.  As a result, these contributors often have their mental health struggles exacerbated.
Popular culture also perpetuates negative stereotypes of those with mental health disorders. It subsequently cultivates negative mindsets towards mental illness and help-seeking behaviours, while glorifying problematic behaviours and stereotypes. This can lead to lowered self-esteem, lowering the likelihood of overall recovery and help-seeking behaviours . Unrealistic images and advertisements claiming to be the “ideal”, are also rampant on social media, giving rise to unhealthy beliefs about body image and excessive dieting.
Self-Diagnosis & Lack of Nuance in Popular Culture
A growing number of people self-diagnose through the consumption of mental health related content on social media platforms . With the vast amount of information online, it has become easier to find others diagnosed with a particular mental health disorder. Social media users experiencing similar symptoms jump to conclusions that they have the same mental health issues.
However, the problem lies in the lack of nuance in mental illnesses portrayed in popular culture. These people sharing their experiences online may not be revealing the full story behind their mental illness. Mental health struggles are faced by many, but it can look different for everyone. The presentation, the root of the problem, and coping strategies for each person’s mental disorder may be different. For example, characters with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often portrayed as having Savant syndrome – they’re geniuses at what they do, albeit a little socially inept . However, not everyone with ASD has Savant syndrome, given there are many ways that ASD presents in different individuals.
Exposure of Young Audiences to Popular Culture
Children’s movies and shows often seem unassuming, but a study found that 85% of Disney movies analysed contained verbal references about mental illnesses.  This wouldn’t be a problem, if not for the fact that these movies often refer to such characters as “crazy”, “mad” or “nutty”, and “serve as objects of derision, fear, or amusement” . From young, we’re taught that characters like Maurice from Beauty and the Beast (1991) are crazy, and create negative associations in our mind about individuals with similar behaviours. It can lead to many of us growing up subconsciously labelling individuals struggling with mental health disorders as “crazy” or “mad”.
There is no doubt we consume popular culture everyday, through social media platforms, shows, or trends. Ideally, individuals at the forefront of such platforms should do their best to create a safe and supportive space to educate others about mental health. It is important to speak about mental health responsibly, for example, through getting the expertise of mental health professionals when portraying characters with mental disorders. As users and consumers of pop culture, we should also be vigilant in spotting negative portrayals of mental health. Ultimately, we should remember to practise empathy in order to create a stigma-free society for those struggling with mental health.
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