Warning: This post contains spoilers for Pretty Little Liars, as well as talk of mental illness.
Pretty Little Liars was great at a lot of things. Namely transporting me out of my anxious brain and into a world of ridiculous drama and fantastic outfits. But it was also great at representation.
Emily Fields was a gay woman of colour. Alison DiLaurentis was probably bisexual. Mona Vanderwaal (or at least, the actress who plays her), was half Chinese. Ashley Maron was a single mother who was killing it. Spencer Hastings possibly had an abortion, and Yvonne Phillips definitely did. For a popular show aimed at teenage girls, this level of representation is sadly rare and most certainly needed.
“In the writers’ minds, trans people are mentally ill, and mentally ill people are dangerous.”
But whilst Pretty Little Liars broke a lot of taboos in teenage TV, it sadly missed the mark with mental health.
For a start, Rosewood for some reason still has a Victorian-esque mental health asylum where patients are locked in cell-like rooms and appear to receive little-to-no actual treatment, aside from high doses of tranquillising medication.
For another, every single character that is portrayed with mental health problems in the show–Mona, Charlotte, Mary Drake–turns out to be evil. And not just in a ‘Oh they’re not very nice, are they’ kind of way, but in a full-blown ‘They literally kidnapped, tortured and tormented a group of girls for nigh on 10 years’ kind of way.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the show also goes one step further and conflates being transgender with being mentally ill. Whilst the show never explicitly states that Charlotte (the show’s only transgender character, who also turns out to be the original ‘A’) transitions because she is mentally ill, the fact that Charlotte turns out to be trans, mentally ill, and a murderous villain makes it abundantly clear that, in the writers’ minds, trans people are mentally ill and mentally ill people are dangerous.
“Every violent criminal is described as ‘sick’ and every senseless crime is labelled ‘mental’.”
The show’s treatment of mental health is at best disappointing and at worse, dangerous.
See, we live in a world where mental illness is already inextricably linked with violence. Every time a white terrorist attacks a Mosque or a school or a public space, we’re told that they were mentally ill. Every time Trump does something rash and dangerous, we’re told that he’s obviously mentally ill. Every violent criminal is described as ‘sick’ and every senseless crime is labelled ‘mental’.
So when a popular show like Pretty Little Liars links mental illness with violence–no matter how implicitly–it reaffirms the idea that mentally ill people are dangerous.
And that affirmation does absolutely nothing to help anyone.
“Not all mentally ill people are violent, and not all violence is the result of a mental illness.”
Labelling violence as the work of mentally ill people not only ignores other causes (such as toxic masculinity) but it also prevents mentally ill people getting the help they need and deserve. After all, why should society bother treating mentally ill people if they’re all violent criminals anyway? Much better to just lock them up and throw away the key–right?
It also prevents mentally ill people from seeking help in the first place. People are already scared to ask for help because they’re worried they’ll be branded weak, unstable, and incapable. Adding violence into that mix is the final nail in the coffin.
Of course, some mentally ill people are violent; and occasionally their mental illness is the cause of their violence. But not all mentally ill people are violent, and not all violence is the result of a mental illness. And suggesting that otherwise–whether in real life or in pop culture– is quite frankly irresponsible.