This is a transcript of my series Mental Health in the Media. The first episode in the series discusses Stranger Things as a metaphor for how a community should deal with mental illness.
You may watch the video essay here!
In Netflix’s Stranger Things, Will Byers is constantly facing an uphill battle in his own head, one that he is losing.
In the first and second season of Stranger Things, Will and his loved ones must face creatures from what they call the upsidedown. A parallel universe beyond our own that would make Stephen King proud. Trapped in the upside-down, Will must depend on the efforts of his friends and family to escape and return home.
In the second season he undergoes therapeutic sessions in order to create a defence against. the demons in his mind, a result of the trauma he endured in the previous season.
The way in which these sessions are handled in the series is reflective of actual therapy sessions. The way the professionals involved cannot concretely say what is happening to or best for Will is incredibly common in the field of physiological and psychopharmacological analysis.
The kind of frustration which Will’s mother, Joyce, experiences is felt across the nation as those with mental health issues are given either no answers or non-answers from the professionals from whom they seek help.
This is an excellent mirror to life and the current state of mental health in America and the way those with mental health issues are often let down or misunderstood by those around them
Will Byers’ struggle to explain himself, and to find validation for his own subjectivity is a mirror to the reality of mental illness as well. An important element of Will’s “episodes,” as they are referred to, is the extent to which they are real, and the extent to which they are considered real by others. Another mirror and perhaps a more important one is that of Will’s perspective as he experiences these “episodes.” The way Will’s experiences are acknowledged as being not only real but ultimately felt by others lends validity and gravity to the episodes the mentally ill experience in reality, whether a psychotic episode, such as one would have if one had bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, or an episode of depression or anxiety. the demons in Will’s head not only feel real but affect his world. The idea that the events that occur in our head can leak out and affect our world is a powerful one. More powerful still, is the response shown by Stranger Things to be most effective for caring for someone whose horrific nightmares have begun to leak from their imagination. Through Will and Mike’s relationship in particular we are shown the value of listening to and protecting the person going through such an experience.
Unfortunately, as a consequence of. the protection that they offer, Will and the rest of the gang are clearly ostracised and otherised from their community because of the events of the first and second seasons. This also occurs in the real world, particularly in terms of the stigma surrounding episodes of mental illness. People, unable to accept and love what they do not understand, reject those who have been deeply affected by the episodes themselves.
It is also worth noting that in both seasons of Stranger Things the first response to the Byers’ claims is disbelief. Both Will, Joyce, and those in their community that believe Will’s experience, face an uphill battle when they try to convince those around them that something dangerous has occurred.
The show clearly asks us to believe these people.
Belief is the most powerful tool for change. When you believe someone you empathise with them. You consider them and what they need. When you act on that consideration, we call that love; and these kids clearly love each other. Because of that love they are willing to help each other through rough patches, whether it’s people having a crush on the same girl, or a strained home-life; or a series of demogorgons crawling out of a nightmare-scape with the intent of killing and eating your mom’s new boyfriend, they still love each other and are stronger for it.
This is the beauty of this show, that through belief and community we can fight against the darkness in our own minds and maybe even win, after all Stranger Things have happened.
Tristan Miller, 2018