Pretty Little Liars Has A Serious Problem Depicting Mental Health

Photo: Courtesy of Freeform.
Tuesday's episode of Pretty Little Liars is the mid-season finale. So far, season 7 hasn't veered too far into dealing with mental health, primarily because Radley Sanitarium was converted into a luxury hotel during the five-year hiatus. However, as Spencer said in season 6, "All roads lead to Radley." We have a lot of expectations for the finale — finding out who dies, getting answers to questions we've had for too long, discovering what is going on with Noel (Brant Daugherty), and hopefully learning a bit more about who "A" is and his or her motivations behind tormenting the girls.
That last point almost guarantees that Radley, in its former sanitarium state, will be important. The local mental hospital has served as the one thing that has connected most story lines. Here's a brief recap (with many plot points redacted for time).
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1. Mary Drake (Andrea Parker) was admitted to Radley at 14 because her sister, Jessica DiLaurentis (also played by Parker), framed her for murdering a baby Jessica was supposed to be babysitting.
2. While in Radley, Mary had two children. One of them is Charles, known now as Charlotte or CeCe (Vanessa Ray), who was adopted by Jessica and her husband, and then later sent to Radley because she is transgender.
3. While in Radley, Charlotte met Bethany Young. We don't know much about Bethany, but during her time at Radley, she befriended Charlotte, killed Toby's (Keegan Allen) mom, became pen pals with Ali (Sasha Pieterse), spent time with Jessica, discovered Jessica was having an affair with Bethany's dad, and was ultimately buried alive because of how similar she looks to Ali.
4. Mona (Janel Parrish) was sent to Radley after being revealed as the original "A" because she was "obsessed" with the Liars. Once Mona left Radley, she was still obsessed with the girls, but CeCe was now "A" and sneaking out of Radley to torment them instead.
Almost every person who has been revealed as "A" has some sort of history with mental illness. If you were to watch this show without any firsthand experience with mental illness, it would be easy to correlate the state of their mental health with their villainy. But there is no direct correlation between someone's mental health and that person's integrity and morality. This pattern on the show only perpetuates a damaging stereotype that society is just starting to overcome through people sharing their own stories as well as celebrities speaking out.
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Photo: Courtesy of Freeform.
When Mona was discovered as "A," she was put into Radley Sanitarium in season 2 because she was "sick." The show leads us to believe her time at Radley cured her. But we know she was still tormenting the girls after her release. The only reason she stopped was because "the game" was stolen from her, and she created an alliance with the Liars out of self-preservation. Once she joined the "good" side, the show's narrative started referring to her as a genius instead of someone who was unwell. If she truly had a diagnosed mental health problem, then she was just as sick once she joined the "right" side of this battle, and just as much of a genius when she was in Radley. If she doesn't have a diagnosis, then the show confused being a mean person with an actual medical condition.
In season 3, Spencer (Troian Bellisario) was admitted to Radley for heartbreak. Somehow, the hurt feelings we all experienced during our first heartbreak led to Spencer getting locked up. Yet, she didn't even receive outpatient treatment when she was suffering from drug abuse and grieving the death of her best friend. Her parents thought she could cope. While the Liars have sporadically visited the town's sole therapist over the last few years, therapy has only served as a device to make the girls vulnerable to more "A" attacks. In reality, after being cyberbullied, kidnapped, beaten up, and tortured, therapy is exactly what the girls need.

In reality, after being cyber bullied, kidnapped, beaten up, and tortured, therapy is exactly what the girls need.

In season 6, we learned that the game was stolen from Mona by Charlotte, another resident of Radley, also because she was "obsessed" with one of the girls. Once again the show used the local mental institution as the backbone of the villain's origin story. There were a few nuances here. For example, in Charlotte's telling, she was admitted to Radley because she is transgender and her father was prejudiced. Not only did this story line once again correlate mental health with being the antagonist, but it also made a mental health facility seem like an island of misfit toys, rather than an actual treatment center.
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This season we've been introduced to Mary Drake, another patient from Radley and possible villain. In her version of events, she was locked up because of a murder her sister committed. While there, Mary had two children — Charlotte and the "secret sibling." The theories on who this secret sibling is are rampant. The top theories all involve (surprise) an element of mental illness. There are people who think it's Aria (Lucy Hale) because of a passing mention that her uncle had a history of mental illness. According to the show, two people with a history of mental illness have to know each other and have a relationship in this world. This theory ties into one dating back to season 1 about Aria having a multiple personality disorder.
Photo: Courtesy of Freeform.
Another popular theory is that the child is Bethany Young. We don't know why she was admitted, but we know that she murdered Toby's mom while in Radley and blamed Charlotte for it. Eventually her relationship of sorts with the DiLaurentis family led to her accidental murder. Charlotte already let us know Bethany's diagnosis as well— intermittent explosive disorder.
The final theory involves Spencer Hastings. Relationships between the DiLaurentis family and the Hastings family are tense. This could be explained because Mr. Hastings and Mrs. DiLaurentis had an affair, resulting in the oldest DiLaurentis child. Instead, theorists have decided Spencer could be the secret sibling and that she spent part of her childhood in Radley. The biggest clue for this theory is Spencer's drug abuse and her occasional nightmares about Radley. Although, in this town, when every new antagonist is either from or sent to Radley, that nightmare makes sense.
I'm totally okay if Spencer's drug abuse comes back up, or if Aria actually does have multiple personality disorder. I actually really enjoy seeing Hanna (Ashley Benson) have what appears to be a genuine breakdown this season. That is a natural response to all that has happened to them. Instead of turning the Liars into some nasty stereotype, it would be more revolutionary to let them have a mental health issue they are coping and surviving with while still getting to be a protagonists of the show.
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My biggest hope for the show is that the final "A" — the one behind the whole game — doesn't actually have some mental health diagnosis. I want he or she to be a bad person. The end. Sure, the person will probably need some professional medical help and therapy — we all need therapy at certain times in our life. Even the Joker has a history of seeking help. But fans of Pretty Little Liars suffering from any mental health issue deserve better. They deserve a "bad guy" who goes to jail instead of the sanitarium, and they deserve to see patients of mental health and anxiety come out on top.
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