Dear Netflix, stop trivialising mental health issues. Elisa Lam deserves better.

16th February 2021


The tragedy that befell Elisa Lam in January of 2013 is one which deserves to be spoken about, and to be reflected on with compassion and respect. Her story is shocking in how the events of her disappearance and death unfurled. But more than that, her story presented to the world a unique and visceral glimpse of a young woman experiencing a mental health crisis. Immortalised in the security camera footage of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles is something significant. A real emergency can be seen playing out before our eyes, which led Elisa to her death at the age of 21. In the right hands, this has the potential to educate our society of mental health challenges, and to battle the many surrounding stigmas that we claim to earnestly fight.

Yet in 2021, through Netflix’s chart-topping documentary series “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel”, what is deemed the appropriate response to this information? According to Netflix, we should ogle at it, and sensationalise what we see, grasping at conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomena to explain it away.

The tragedy of Elisa Lam

Elisa Lam was a Canadian student who had been looking forward to traveling independently through California in January of 2013. She was close to her family, with whom she kept in contact daily on her travels. She was keen to meet new people, and make friends. She also suffered from mental health issues – and had been prescribed medication to treat her bipolar disorder and depression.

It’s completely understandable that several factors make Elisa’s story a compelling one, and a clear candidate for documentary filmmakers to turn their attention to. The notoriety of the Cecil Hotel, a decayed and seedy hotel in downtown LA, coupled with the aforementioned security footage, and the shocking way in which Elisa’s body was discovered, made it compelling to us in 2013, and still today.

But let’s be clear. This is not a “true crime” saga. There was no murder here – there is no ghost story. And to demonstrate what makes the treatment of Elisa’s story so unacceptable and perturbing, we only need to look at one moment. The climax of the first episode of this mini-series shows, in its entirety, the four minutes of “elevator footage” from the Cecil Hotel. This is the last footage seen of Elisa Lam before her death, and it shows her, alone with nobody else in shot, and clearly in the throes of a psychotic episode.

Accompanying this video footage, is the narration of several individuals from the documentary. I transcribe these comments word for word:

  • “She’s making these strange steps, in almost this square dance motion, stepping back and forth.”
  • “Why is the elevator not going anywhere? Is someone pressing a button?”
  • “…And that’s when the weird stuff starts happening.”
  • “Elisa starts pressing these buttons…You have to wonder, why are you hitting all these different floors like that?”
  • “She’s waving her hands, it’s like she’s conjuring a spirit, or acting something out to someone.”
  • “It’s just such bizarre behaviour.”
  • “What the hell’s going on here?”
  • “One strange thing is…. the whole time Elisa is in there, the door never shuts…and now it shuts very quickly.”
  • “it’s one of those things that makes your scratch your head and say hmm – this is weird.”
  • “It’s like a mini ghost story built into four minutes.”

The footage of Elisa alone in the elevator is indeed jarring. It’s hard to watch. But this is the reality of what a psychotic episode can look like. In that moment, Elisa is a real person, experiencing a real and distressing event. Yet not a single one of these comments treats the moment with the maturity and recognition it deserves. Not a single mention of mental health is made in the first two episodes of the series; instead, we see the sensational claims of ghosts and spirits being conjured, we see the labels of a “bizarre” and “weird” person, and we see insinuations of foul play. Elisa Lam’s memory deserves better than these accusations and sensationalisms. As do the millions of people who experience severe mental health issues around us. And thus ends the first episode of a chart-topping series.

We could excuse such a treatment of this event, if it were part of an obscure amateur film, made by a single individual. But as I write this, it’s been the most watched series on Netflix for several days. We are consuming this information in the millions, and are effectively endorsing it for others around us to see. With regards to our true appetite to understand and empathise with mental health topics, this signifies a problem of a worrying scale.

We need to introspect deeply on our treatment of these topics, and be able to discern the right actions to take when vulnerable people in our society need support. In response to the vastness of the media which gets thrown at us (and over which we have little control), we need to take responsibility for how we will respond, think and act. In my view, we need to approach these less discussed mental health issues with earnest and without judgment; to be open to learning about them, and discussing their effects on the real people around us in our society. This should be the case, however difficult these events may be to understand, and however jarring they may be to look at and experience face on.

An ever deepening disconnect between our values and actions

To me, though, there’s something even more troubling about this development. I see a clear and widening disconnect between our deeply-held values, both as individuals and as a society, and the actions and positions promoted to us through our information and media. These latter pieces of media are constantly capturing our attention, but may be doing greater harm in the way they distort and sensationalise meaningful topics. And this disconnect exists because of an ever-deepening market failure in how we consume, and access information.

The whole industry of digital information and media has exploded with innovations in how media is made, shared and tailored to our desires. But it exists without regulation, and its growth has perhaps been too quick for us to properly understand. This is a really complex topic as it pushes us, with some discomfort, to challenge our ethical boundaries. For example, at what point should freedom of expression be limited to protect our understanding and awareness of important topics? In the case of Elisa Lam, how much damage is done by a documentary sensationalizing mental health issues, and bringing them into the realm of the absurd and supernatural? And what’s the cumulative damage of such media becoming not only a one-off, but a successful trend which satisfies our entertainment desires?

We may never be able to fully answer these questions, but we need to have the courage to ask them. These are important questions which we are not spending enough time contemplating and discussing in earnest. Rather than stopping and thinking them through, we remain distracted by bombardments of digital and media information almost every minute of our lives.

There may be no easy solutions

We are not suggesting there are easy solutions, by any means. There is certainly a role for regulation. There is also certainly a role for culture – for us as consumers of media to “vote” with our fingers that swipe and click, and to better understand and interact with the information world. There is also a role for market freedom, variety and unconstrained expression right in the middle – the space where people can supply and demand freely, and where individuals can decide why, how and what to produce and consume, irrespective of how beneficial or harmful their production or consumption may be to themselves or others.

And with all three of these considerations, we are not proposing any definite solutions. Rather, we are saying that there emerges an important and critical question: have we drawn the lines around regulation, culture and market freedoms in the information world in the right place, or have they been rushed? And are they inadequate and always lagging?

AxiaOrigin’s stance is that, as local and global communities, this is the discussion for us to have – and for us to have sooner, rather than later. Because the alternative is the easier path, but the more damning one. If we can consume such media as “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel”, and be totally OK with its treatment of such important issues as mental health, then we remain part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Marios Kyriacou | Co-founder