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Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ Taps into Helpful Mental Health Messages

A woman sitting in front of a TV, holding a remote and looking through shows on Netflix

By Ashleigh Adams, PhD

Within a week of its debut in May, volume 1 of “Stranger Things” Season 4 was Netflix’s third most popular English language series of all time, and Netflix crashed after the release of volume 2 on July 1. The show is known for its nostalgic style, but Season 4 has done more than fuel an otherwise unlikely resurgence of a hit mid-80’s single. As a clinical psychologist, I am impressed by the show’s ability to portray how isolating trauma can be and how it can bring out a shadow side of ourselves that, if left unaddressed, can be deadly. Please note this piece contains spoilers.

Early in the season, we see Vecna, the season’s mysterious and monstrous villain, searching for his next victim, navigating an astral plane where he can prey upon an individual’s most negative, harmful inner thoughts. Many symptoms Vecna picks up on are common reactions after experiencing trauma: nightmares, isolation and avoidance, anger and irritability, guilt, and shame.

The character Max Mayfield is especially illustrative of both typical responses to trauma and how social support — or the lack thereof — can exacerbate symptoms and increase risk for depression and suicidality. Mayfield has vivid nightmares about her stepbrother’s gruesome death and relives the moment in her daily life. What’s more, she avoids discussing her feelings and experience with the school counselor, friends, or her mother. And, importantly, she feels extreme shame and guilt at surviving when her brother did not.

As a therapist working with veterans, I see a lot of similarities in combat survivors. Deep shame and isolation are very common reactions after trauma, however withdrawing from social support — friends, family, and community — and avoiding reminders of the traumatic event can make symptoms worse. In the long term, this can lead to hopelessness, passively wishing for death and, can eventually lead to suicidal ideation and/or behaviors.

Pop culture portrayals of mental health are important opportunities to challenge widespread misconceptions of mental health concerns and stigma against seeking treatment. For example, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often associated exclusively with war and combat when in fact PTSD affects about 8 million people in America each year — the vast majority of whom are civilians. Framing PTSD is a veteran-only issue can cause many people to spend years or decades without seeking treatment, often disregarding their experiences and symptoms as “not bad enough” to indicate PTSD.

The same is true for passive suicidality or a wish to be dead. Recent studies suggest passive suicidality affects 10 percent of people across their lifetime, and it is an early warning sign for suicide risk. However, many characterize a passive wish for death as — again — “not that bad.” These symptoms can and do occur in people without severe depressive disorders. Even if someone is able to go to work and take care of a family and home, passive suicidality is a sign the person should reach out for support. Unfortunately, if not treated or recognized as an urgent issue, passive suicidality tends to get worse over time.

With Max Mayfield, we see a trend towards suicidality in her acceptance of her seemingly inevitable death —she pens good-bye letters, and portrays an initial hopelessness when she is first transported to Vecna’s realm. She is only able to thwart the villain Vecna — overcoming her desire to die and running back to herself — by letting her friends in, being vulnerable, and accepting support. Vecna’s other victims died without sharing anything with their friends or, presumably, their families or the police.

When Mayfield decides to fight for her life and accept her friends’ help, she’s more engaged and more herself, no longer the isolated shadow we saw at the beginning of the season. “Stranger Things” season four could be a useful tool for viewers: if you relate to some of the characters, it may be time to reach out for support. Mental health treatment for trauma, PTSD, and suicidality works, and you don’t have to face your demons alone.


Ashleigh Adams, PhD, is a psychologist and therapist at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania—which provides mental health care for veterans and family members at no cost.

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