The Whitewashed Narrative: Mental Health

So, here’s the thing. Right now everyone seems to have a hot take on mental health thanks in large part to this new Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why. Now, I’m not going to sit here and give you an analysis of the show because if you just search the show’s title you’re bound to find about a thousand think pieces, Op-Eds, and shouts into the Internet’s void about how great, terrible, and everything in between it is. I know what you’re thinking: This is a writing blog. Why are you talking about a Netflix series? Well, first of all, I love Netflix and I am willing to talk about TV shows and movies until I die. But, more importantly, before “13 Reasons Why” was televised, it was a novel.

I personally have never read the novel, though plenty of my friends did. They proclaimed it was touching, moving, and life-changing because they were reading about a character that they could relate to—a young, middle-class white girl struggling to fit in in high school, even though she somehow has the attention of every popular boy at school, but that’s beside the point. I’m not invalidating this; it is a good story from an important teenage perspective, which I understand is needed because so often the teen experience is invalidated.

But this isn’t the first book written this way; just take a look at the novel “Speak” by Laurie Hause Anderson or John Green’s “Looking For Alaska.” While these books do create the space to talk about the significance of mental health, particularly in women, they ignore anyone who isn’t a white, middle-class, cis-gender female. Each of the novels focuses on a white girl living in a white world, as if anyone who doesn’t fit this mold doesn’t face these problems. Actually, most mental health fiction novels are basically a white, middle-class, cis-gender fest.

Looking at the most popular mental health fiction novels on Goodreads you’ll find that people of color, lower-class, and genderqueer stories aren’t included. Even more interesting, these are the people that tend to suffer from mental health issues the most because they are so largely discriminated against. Charlie in “Perks of Being a Wallflower” very much could have been a black character given fact that Black-Americans are 20% more likely to experience mental health problems than the rest of the U.S. American population. Yet, he was depicted as white. “13 Reasons Why”‘s Hannah Baker just as well could have been American Indian since American Indians have the highest rate of young adult suicide of any ethnicity. But, Hannah Baker had to be a beautiful white girl in order to evoke emotion and relatability from audiences.

As a person of color with mental illness, although I am straight and cisgender, I’m tired of the white girl being the face of mental health. I get it. She was beautiful, she could have had it all, but then this “bad thing” happened that she didn’t deserve it. The thing is though, no one deserves it. No one should have to go through the trouble of struggling with mental health issues. I get that authors are trying to get the word out and destroy the stigma surrounding these issues, but it doesn’t do anything for POC, lower-class, queer, and genderqueer if every mental health story is about a sad straight, white boy/girl. Yes, their stories are valid, but so are ours. We want to be seen, heard, and understood just like the Hannah Bakers, Charlies, and Alaskas of the literary world.