How Accurate Are Media Portrayals of Chronic Illness?

Chronic illness representation in the media has grown dramatically in the past 35 years, which is probably a good thing, because the more we talk about illnesses, the less stigma there is, and hopefully, the more research gets funded so that one day they may not have to be chronic (I know that’s probably way too big of a dream, but hey, gotta be at least somewhat optimistic). I think most of us can probably agree though, that many of these portrayals aren’t very good… or realistic. The main problem that I see, at least in the world of fiction, is that the stakes are always super high – it’s life or death – which isn’t the case for most of us living with chronic illness, at least not on a regular basis (and of course, it does depend what illness we are looking at). There’s also always some kind of unrealistic love story surrounding the illness, which from those I’ve talked to in real life, doesn’t seem to be the case for most people. But, we can probably forgive Hollywood because at the end of the day they’re a business trying to make money. So let’s dive into some, perhaps more accurate or partially accurate portrayals in the following categories: fictional film & tv, documentary film & tv, celebrities, and music.

Me in “Hell-A” (2018) – hopefully you get the reference to the Bran Van 3000 song.

Fictional Film & TV
This is where most of the problematic portrayals are, but there are some portrayals that are better. I’m not going to get into an extensive list, but just highlight a few. For TV, I would say Degrassi – and I don’t mean just the most recent iteration of this 30+ running show, but going back to the beginning. In Degrassi Junior High/Degrassi High (1987-1991), Caitlin was diagnosed with epilepsy, and LD had leukemia. The original series was extremely realistic in a lot of ways, which probably lent itself to doing these story lines well. A more recent version of the show apparently did a good job with a cystic fibrosis storyline.
Movies wise, I though Love and Other Drugs did a good job with a young person who had Parkinson’s, and Brain on Fire, took us through the journey of a young woman being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. This movie was based on a true story. Of course, there are a number of other good portrayals out there, sometimes we just have to sift through the not-so-good ones first.

Caitlin (portrayed by Stacie Mystysin) on Degrassi Junior High.

Documentary Film & TV
This is a way better place to find accurate portrayals of chronic illness, because we’re actually following real people in their real lives (I do want to say that even in docs some things are contrived. I’ve worked on a few in my previous careers and we’ve had people change their clothes, or pick locations we should do things to help move the “story” along, but overall they are still more accurate than fiction). TV wise, I found a show (on Netflix I think) called Diagnosis, about a team of doctors diagnosing people with rare illnesses, that had been unable to be diagnosed by any other doctors. It was pretty cool (there was one girl who was ultimately diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder, which may be controversial for some of you, just a warning). Other docs that I liked include Gaga: Five Foot Two, which highlight Lady Gaga’s fibromyalgia; and Gleason, about former NFL-er Steve Gleason who was diagnosed with ALS in his early 30s.

Celebrities
I know a lot of people find it annoying when celebs talk about their illnesses, because at the end of the day, they have a ton of money and can usually afford amazing care and things that the rest of us can’t. Here’s why I like when celebs do talk about it: (1) it gets the convo going, (2) they often use their fame to help generate fundraising, and (3) it normalizes illness for people with and without illness. Some celebs who have done a good job in this arena are Michael J. Fox (Parkinson’s), Selma Blair (MS), Selena Gomez (Lupus), and Sarah Hyland (Kidney Dysplasia).

Music
This is the other category I would say is “highly accurate” because often the singer-songwriters are singing about their own personal experiences with their illness. Music is typically quite raw and real (some genres more so than other), and many of the songs about chronic illness feel honest. A couple we could highlight (and really there are a ton I could put here but I’m just going to pick a couple) are Believer by Imagine Dragons (about ankylosing spondylitis), Caves by Jack’s Mannequin (about leukemia), and Head Above Water by Avril Lavigne (about Lyme Disease).

What are some of your favourite portrayals of chronic illness in the media? Feel free to comment on the blog or tag me on Instagram @chronically.living_
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