Why 'Riverdale' Needs to Rethink How It Represents Mental Health and Suicide
Editor’s note: This piece contains spoilers for the show “Riverdale.”
At the beginning of this year, the new TV show “Riverdale” became one of the most popular drama shows among teenagers and young people, myself included. I felt immediately drawn to the characters and the mystery plot. And I really liked it.
But, as the show went on, I noticed some characters were treated really badly; especially characters who struggled with their mental health, such as Cheryl Blossom. As you may know, as the twin sister of Jason Blossom, whose murder is the leading mystery of the show, Cheryl Blossom is a central character. Cheryl is, right at the beginning, portrayed as the typical “villain.” She is seen as manipulative, cold-hearted and evil. However, as more details of her home and private life are revealed, we discover she is isolated and lonely. She is clearly unhappy.
And she has good reasons to be: she lost her brother, the only person who mattered to her and who was good to her; she doesn’t have any kind of relationship with her father, who ignores her; her mother basically abuses her verbally and sometimes blames her for Jason’s death; and to top it all, she doesn’t seem to have any real friends, or at least people to talk to.
She is completely alone. And very angry. So, her natural defense mechanism is to shut herself from the others. She’d rather become cold and feared than attach herself to people who might forsake her.
Thankfully, her character evolves throughout the show. However, even as her mental health issues develop, they are never dealt with. She appears to be struggling with post-traumatic stress, which is expressed by nightmares, visions and panic attacks, and from severe depression, which eventually leads her to a suicide attempt.
All of this is well-described and shown in the show. We see her experiencing nightmares of her dead brother (looking like a zombie) who’s trying to get to her; she has an anxiety attack when she is cheering for the football team and she has a vision of her brother running in the field. Her slow path to suicide is highlighted. We see Cheryl falling gradually into loneliness and misery, as all of her attempts to make friends or to reach out to her parents, especially her mother, fail miserably.
In episode 11, I was really sensitive to her behavior. Indeed, in this episode, she tries to make Polly, Betty’s sister, an ally. She wants to go to the ball alongside her, showing her desire not to be alone. However, even this doesn’t work, partially because of her parents, and she ends up going to the party on her own. There, we see her standing all alone in the cheering crowd, looking sad and dispirited. She finally leaves the party early on, and no one notices her. I could relate to that. Feeling alone in a crowd. Leaving without anyone acknowledging you. It’s very hard. And painful.
But what was the most painful indication of her struggling mental health was in the finale episode when she plans her suicide. It was so well done, it stabbed me in the heart violently. In this episode, Cheryl starts giving out her most prized possessions, like her brooch or her cheerleading t-shirt; she makes amends; she quits school activities. Basically, she puts her things in order, just as a suicidal person sometimes does. She even leaves a last message to Veronica, telling her that she’s going to be with Jason.
Her final attempt for life was reaching out to her mother, trying to make her care for her. But it doesn’t work and her mother only rejects her harshly. That makes up her mind. She doesn’t want to live anymore. Not in a life where no one cares for her.
At this point, I had tears in my eyes.
For me, the problem doesn’t reside in the depiction of mental health, but rather in the treatment of the character and of her mental health.
Like I said before, Cheryl is the “villain” of the show, and so, all of her actions are considered “evil” or done for a purpose. Because of that, she doesn’t receive the same attention as the others.
No one feels bad for her or pities her. They either don’t care because she is “bad,” or seem to think she deserves what she gets. But no one deserves to struggle without help. Cheryl is not perfect, but that doesn’t mean she deserves less attention and care than the other characters like Betty, Veronica, Archie or Jughead.
The show only seems to focus on her to show her bad side, to depict her as “mean.” And, on the other hand, it shows us her loneliness, her misery and her anger. It shows us her nightmares, her panic attacks, her depression. But it doesn’t do anything about it.
What really shocked and disgusted me was the final episode of first season, after her suicide attempt. I felt like they had portrayed her road to suicide well, but, once more, they were unable to deal with the consequences of it.
To resume what happened, after Cheryl tried to kill herself, she was rescued by Veronica, Archie, Betty and Jughead, and Veronica takes her home. But after that, Veronica and her mother leave her alone to go to a party. I couldn’t even find the words to express my disbelief.
How do you leave someone who just tried to kill herself all alone? How can you make your characters not care at all about a suicidal person? It made me so mad that the writers of the show treated suicide this way. They made it seem like attempting suicide is just something that happens, and you can just go back to your life as if nothing happened.
The band went to their party and after that, they went to get some milkshakes together, like it was any other day. They didn’t even check on her afterwards. They didn’t even wonder.
You never leave a suicidal person alone. Cheryl was ready to die, and knowing how troubled her family was, they shouldn’t have let her go back home and then left her alone. Suicide is never a casual thing, and TV shows need to stop normalizing and romanticizing it.
So, please “Riverdale,” stop degrading suicide and romanticizing it. It should have been treated better, like all of Cheryl’s traumas. And I hope that in the second season, her mental health is addressed. She can’t move on as if nothing happened. Instead of normalizing suicide, normalize people who seek help and go talk to someone. It’s so important.
Please, “Riverdale,” do the right thing.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
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Lead photo via Riverdale’s Facebook page