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

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.

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July 19, 2022 | Penn Medicine News featuring Dr. Ashleigh Adams

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