Mind in the Media: How Stranger Things 4 Uses Vecna to Symbolize Mental Illness

Stranger Things character Max, sitting in a graveyard

Verywell / Netflix

Mind in the Media is an ongoing series discussing mental health and psychological topics in popular movies and television

Spoiler alert! This article contains major spoilers for the fourth season of the TV show, Stranger Things, available on Netflix.

In its first three seasons, Netflix’s Stranger Things introduced us to terrifying monsters like the Demogorgon and the Mind Flayer, and now in the recently released first part of the fourth season, the series unveiled its scariest monster yet: Vecna.

Unlike the Demagorgon or Mind Flayer, which slay anyone who gets in their way, the humanoid Vecna is more discerning about its victims. Vecna targets adolescents in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, who are suffering psychologically, torturing and killing those who are the most vulnerable.

Yet, despite that grim premise, Vecna’s arrival has also resulted in Stranger Things presenting a potent illustration of the mental health concerns adolescents can face.

Although the reasons some of the characters are struggling with mental health are the result of fantastical circumstances that spring from the show's horror genre trappings, much of what it depicts in season 4 accurately sheds light on the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, as well as how people can heal from those challenges.

Depictions of Adolescent Trauma and Depression

Vecna has a very specific m.o. throughout Stranger Things 4; he chooses a target, calls to them in their minds while causing headaches, nosebleeds, and other minor physical ailments, and eventually he makes them see hallucinations before finally brutally killing them.

Vecna then moves on to his next victim starting the process all over again. However, the show makes it clear that almost all Vecna's victims were already psychologically vulnerable to his influence before he started targeting them. For that reason, Jennifer Morton, Licensed Professional Counselor and practitioner for ThriveWorks’ Anchorage, AK office specializing in the treatment of trauma, and Jennifer Chaiken, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, co-owner of The Therapy Group, and co-host of the ShrinkChicks podcast, agree that Vecna is a representation of PTSD.

Chaiken notes this is based on the symptoms Vecna’s victims exhibit, saying “you see them experiencing some symptoms of PTSD, some symptoms of depression, which oftentimes occur co-morbidly.” Moreover, Morton points out that each character is keeping secrets because of the trauma and depression they’re experiencing.

Viewer Discretion Advised

Although this season of Stranger Things touches on the topics of depression and PTSD, it is definitely the scariest season yet. If you or someone you love is struggling with a mental health condition or is sensitive to intense subject matter, we recommend watching with a friend or possibly passing on it altogether.

For example, Max (Sadie Sink) has cut herself off from her friends and is self-isolating because she’s experiencing depression and survivor’s guilt, a symptom of PTSD, over the death of her step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), which happened in the show’s third season.

Max believes she didn’t do enough to help Billy and is therefore experiencing headaches, trouble sleeping, flashbacks to what happened, and ruminations about what she could have done even before Vecna starts to target her. Once Vecna begins to haunt her, it heightens all her symptoms, while also causing new symptoms of PTSD such as hallucinations and delusions, as well as a sense of impending doom.

In fact, although all the people Vecna targets are troubled for different reasons, they all experience very similar psychological symptoms that they go out of their way to keep hidden.

As Chaiken observes, part of this may be the result of depression, which creates negative thoughts that cause those who are suffering to believe things like they aren’t worthy of help, that they won’t be understood if they reach out, or that they might be a burden if they share what they’re going through.

Yet no matter the reason, keeping what they're going through secret leads to feelings of isolation and loneliness, even for people like Vecna’s first victim, the cheerleader Chrissy (Grace Van Dien), who on the surface seems well-adjusted and popular.

As Morton explains, keeping mental health issues hidden, such as Chrissy's eating disorder and trauma from abuse by her mother, prevents people from feeling connected to others, even when they're in a crowd.

Stigma Keeps Pain Hidden

Moreover, although society’s understanding and acceptance of mental illness is improving, both Chaiken and Morton assert that a stigma still exists that causes many people to hide issues like depression. That stigma would have been even more powerful and true in 1986 when Stranger Things takes place.

“Especially when society pushes this idea that you choose happiness…depression must be something that you're making a choice about too,” Chaiken says. “Because of the stigma around mental health, we don't necessarily give it the nurturance that we need. So often people do suffer in silence...”

This can be especially true for children and adolescents who, Morton notes, lack the life experience and the maturity to process their responses when a trauma happens. Plus, children and adolescents are egocentric, leading them to look inside to understand why things happen. Chaiken explains that teenagers’ brains don’t fully form until around the age of 25, making them more susceptible to heightened emotional states and distorted thinking.

As a result, adolescents who lack information, support, or someone to talk through their issues with can develop damaging beliefs about their culpability when trauma happens, even in situations that are outside of their control. Stranger Things demonstrates this with the character Fred (Logan Riley Bruner), who blames himself for the car accident in which his friend died, an event that Vecna exploits by forcing him to see flashbacks and hallucinations related to the accident.

Vecna as a Means for Externalizing Trauma and Depression

Chaiken suggests that while Vecna is a source of horror in Stranger Things, the monster can also serve as a useful vessel for externalizing issues like trauma and depression. “I think it's very beneficial to think about PTSD and depression as something that's external to you in order for you to be able to fight it.”

Jennifer Chaiken, LMFT

I think it's very beneficial to think about PTSD and depression as something that's external to you in order for you to be able to fight it.

— Jennifer Chaiken, LMFT

Chaiken compares mental health challenges to physical ailments, noting that we don’t blame ourselves for a cold or a broken leg and we typically seek out treatment for these things because we don't see them as part of us. “When it's coming from your mind, it's harder to externalize it,” Chaiken says, “but I think it's helpful in a lot of ways. And that's why I think having Vecna as a representation of [PTSD and] depression can be really helpful for those who do struggle with [these issues] as a way of externalizing [and depersonalizing] them.”

Morton observes that finding ways to externalize mental health issues is helpful because “when we get depressed…we try to shut down the emotional side of our brain. We don't want to feel those emotions because they're very intense, very negative… We’re not accessing what we need to get ourselves out of it: creative problem solving and perspective.”

However, externalizing mental health issues enables people to start thinking about these things as separate from themselves, which can help them think and feel differently and start to heal.  

Art and Music as Tools for Healing

So far, the only character that Vecna targets that gets away is Max, who's saved by two things: first, her friends played her favorite song, which got through to her long enough for her to notice they were trying to save her.

While Max had to free herself from Vecna by running through a portal, the means of her escape point to things that can help people heal from PTSD, depression, and other mental illnesses in the real world: art and human connection.

Jennifer Morton, LPC

Art allows us to tap into our stress without necessarily understanding that that's what we're doing. It's non-threatening…

— Jennifer Morton, LPC

Chaiken and Morton suggest that creating art, listening to music, watching movies, or other creative activities can help the healing process. “Depression takes you out of the present moment, keeps you in these unhelpful thoughts or ruminating about the past,” Chaiken says. “So art and music can be so helpful in that way because it brings you back into the present moment and helps you to do something that might bring you a little bit of joy or take you out of your depression.”

Morton adds, “Art allows us to tap into our stress without necessarily understanding that that's what we're doing. It's non-threatening…”

As Max Quickly Learns, You Should Never Hesitate to Ask for Help

Chaiken and Morton also strongly encourage people who are suffering to seek out a counselor or therapist, although both emphasize the importance of finding a therapist who specializes in trauma and feels like someone you can open up to. If the mental health professional either doesn’t have the right expertise or isn’t someone you feel safe talking to, they’re unlikely to help you heal.

Reaching out to others or thinking about loved ones can be helpful as well. Morton and Chaiken agree that if you choose to discuss your mental health struggles with a friend or family member, you should be cautious about who you choose, because even those with the best intentions may not say or do the right thing.

However, as Chaiken notes, if you push against the desire to isolate and spend time with people who care about you without discussing your challenges with PTSD or depression, it can still be a very healing experience.

Meanwhile, Morton suggests reaching out if you notice someone else appears to be hurting. Just spending time with them can help them realize they’re not alone and start the healing process.

Most of all, Chaiken advises patience for anyone struggling with their mental health. “It's such a process [to heal from trauma, depression, and other mental illnesses], and it's okay for it to be a process… Being patient with yourself is really important.”

By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.