Baby Reindeer Effect: Making Impact on the Mental Health Debate

Baby Reindeer Effect: Making Impact on the Mental Health Debate

Watching Baby Reindeer is a tough experience for anyone who has had serious mental health issues, but it does provide lessons for us as individuals and as a wider society. Make no mistake, while the story may focus on stalking, mental health is a powerful underlying theme throughout, and one made very pertinent with it being a true story.

In terms of pure story, the one problem is that, with creative licence, there can be drama mixed in with facts. At the time of writing, the person portrayed as the main villain has identified themselves and has already denied a major plot point. It seems that this will end up in some legal action, so we must treat the story as a work of fiction when referencing it. It’s worth also noting that this individual confirmed their identity because, through the show’s portrayal, some were able to figure it out based on the character. Regardless of how much we enjoy a show, someone having their privacy and identity compromised is an unfair result of a story that is not journalistic in nature being popularised.

The hit show sees most major characters responding to trauma in one way or another. It is an unapologetic look at how people can respond to circumstances and mental heath. If there’s one thing I find fiction rarely does with this subject, it’s capturing those moments of ‘oh god why’ where mental illness leads to irrational actions that are rationalised in the mind of the sufferer.

It’s a tough thing to portray — showing how people with mental illness or those responding to intensely stressful situations can end up acting in a way they wouldn’t in regular circumstances. To its credit, Baby Reindeer is open and raw in their portrayal, showing how the protagonist struggles in light of his trauma. There are segments that remind me of the temptation to go and interact with my triggers before I’d treated my own PTSD. Overall, its portrayal of mental health is accurate, to the point of not hiding away from grim truths, creating characters that are realistic and complex rather than the more palatable archetype we’re used to in fiction.

It’s a show with a narrow focus, told from the perspective of the protagonist. As such, it doesn’t attempt to explain the reasoning behind the two main antagonists’ actions, but at least one of them comes across as mentally unwell.

I enjoyed seeing something that was so unflinching with its handling of mental health. Even the presentation of it shows the kind of frustration that usually comes with dealing with it. The ‘I really shouldn’t talk about this’ or the ‘I should pick my battles so I’ll talk about this another time’ feelings that come with it. But Baby Reindeer was also a hard watch because, when you are so very ill, as the protagonist becomes, you can make a lot of poorly thought out decisions. The context can explain it, but context is only a reason, not an excuse. If you’re severely ill and acting in a way that isn’t perceived as rational, you may anger some people — something many of us felt watching the show. It’s a horrible situation to experience or witness, and this is one of the few shows I’ve seen portray that.

The show’s protagonist, Donny, routinely makes decisions that are hard to watch from our impartial viewpoint. While you understand the stress of what he’s going through, frustration with his actions can impact how likeable the character feels. For that reason, this show deserves to be analysed because it could end up teaching a lot about mental health.

Without including details that spoil the plot for any who haven’t watched, a scene in the penultimate episode makes this following point quite bluntly. You see actions from Donny that could be seen as irrational but, by this point, you also have five episodes worth of context. You see the problematic action and the perspective of people only seeing that one action but, as a viewer, it feels like you’re supposed to side with our protagonist.

The result is a show whose protagonist is indirectly teaching us to be aware of potential context and the litany of surprising, less talked-about things that could be driving someone (in this case, Donny) into a seemingly irrational action. If there’s one legacy the show could leave, it’s to make people think twice and not jump to mocking or distancing themselves from a person who appears to be making their problem worse or making decisions that appear to be hurting rather than helping themselves.

Perhaps the point of the show is that by the end, you know that Martha (the primary antagonist) has done bad things, but you’re not especially angry — you’re intrigued. You want to know what drove her to the action or made her as unwell as she seemed to be, seeking the context that we then had with Donny.

With that point in mind, this could be a great asset for mental health debates and perhaps even push the discourse on. I know personally I’ve lost friends in similar situations. Perhaps this forced perspective of context and the discomfort of watching a person make decisions we don’t understand could create pause for us to reflect on the decisions of those we know. It has the potential to encourage discussion and seeking that context that we so often miss.

For those who are or have previously experienced similar situations or trauma to that depicted in the show, keeping triggers in mind is key if intending to watch. It displays a lot of uncomfortable situations that could be triggering as well as unhealthy coping mechanisms and behaviour from the protagonist. As someone who has reached a comfortable phase in my mental health journey, I was able to watch safely without being triggered, but it is clear where certain scenes could be hard to manage depending on where you are in your personal journey. Its portrayal of mental health feels honest and accurate, so it’s up to you whether that’s something you want to engage with.

One thing I will say is that personally, I love watching dark dramas, but none have ever come close to prompting this much internal debate for me over a portrayal of mental health. I don’t think society is as good at dealing with mental health as it thinks it is, so perhaps it’ll stir the wider populace into more debate. That would make me smile.