The past few months, I have been watching even more TV than usual. I’ve gotten some new shows under my belt and I realized a few of them had something in common—they all effectively deal with mental illness.
To wrap up May, which is also Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ve rounded up some of the best TV shows that deal with mental health and mental illness. While representations of mental illness in the media can to be a bit problematic due to a lack of understanding/funding and a desire to stereotype, the shows below handle mental illness effectively (semi-spoiler alerts, but not really).
You’re The Worst
You’re The Worst, at first, seems like a dark indie comedy as it follows a budding relationship between Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere). As the series goes on, it gets a bit more serious and we learn that Gretchen isn’t just sarcastic and anti-social but also is clinically depressed. You’re The Worst has given us one of the most accurate depictions of depression on TV—it isn’t romanticized or dramatized but rather almost normalized. It doesn’t try to explain depression because most often it can’t be explained and can be hard to understand. You’re The Worst acknowledges that depression doesn’t affect people in ‘outbursts’ but rather is something that is underlying and can affect a person daily, even while they’re enjoying mimosas at brunch or the company of their loved ones. The show gives a good glimpse into the challenges of living with it and/or loving someone who does. You’re The Worst never sensationalizes depression, which is why I believe it to be so effective.
The series-premiere of Wilfred begins with Ryan (Elijah Wood) and his suicide note. Ryan is quickly introduced as manic-depressive and shortly after his attempt of suicide, he meets Wilfred (Jason Gann), his neighbor’s dog. While to most of the characters on the show Wilfred is a typical little pup, Ryan and Wilfred are able to communicate and speak to one another, Ryan seeing him as an adult male dressed in a dog costume. Throughout the entire series, it is unclear as to whether Wilfred is truly something Ryan has made up or if his bond with Wilfred is real and the show is slightly mystical (really because Wilfred is so damn convincing) but Ryan’s manic-depression is prevalent throughout the series. Wilfred helps him cope with that and helps him get out into the world (Wilfred also sometimes gets Ryan into pretty shitty situations).
Degrassi: The Next Generation
Okay—I know, I know. I was reluctant to putting Degrassi on this list, because sometimes I find the way they deal with mental illness as a very ‘mister-of-the-week’ approach, in that one week a character will be struggling with an eating disorder/depression/self-harm/etc and then the next week they are magically cured. While this approach in one vein can be very problematic, I also commend Degrassi for introducing these issues to young adults. I watched it growing up and, while now I’ve outgrown it, it’s still an effective tool for making mental health issues more accessible for younger folks who may not realize what they are dealing with/where to turn/etc.
In Community, Abed has an undiagnosed psychological condition (although Aspergers is hinted at), which makes it difficult for him to understand and affectively communicate with people—despite this, the people around him love him which helps make social disorders more accessible. At first, Abed just seems to be a bit strange and maybe kidding half the time but as time goes on we see that he truly believes his life is a TV show and at some point, does suffer some sort of breakdown. Community also acknowledges the fact that people of color can suffer from mental health issues as well, something not prevalent enough in modern media.
United States of Tara
United States of Tara follows Tara Gregson, a suburban mother with dissociative personality disorder (DID), more colloquially referred to as multiple-personality disorder. The show is a dramatic comedy and gives a look into how DID can affect families, as hers doesn’t know, when speaking with Tara, if they’ll be greeted by their mother, an angsty teenager girl, a beer & gun loving middle aged man, or a 1950s’ housewife. Although the show does have a highly comedic twist, it also does have some truth in its portrayal of dissociative personality disorder—Tara’s personalities are often triggered by events in her life, and according to the DSM, differing personalities can totally span genders and ages. I find other portrayals of DID to be very kitschy (and almost pretending like it isn’t a mental health issue) so I appreciate US of Tara a lot for that—the show and character become more complex as time goes on and her story a bit more serious as well.
I can think of a few more that, just for space, didn’t make it into this post: Shameless and Empire both have characters that live with bipolar disorder, and Netflix Originals BoJack Horseman & Love both deal with depression and addiction, in both comical and more serious ways. The character Ilana in Broad City is actively taking anti-depressants and the show has done a good job of “de-stigmatizing depression and the use of psychotropic medications” (said so eloquently by my friend Devon). Orange Is The New Black‘s Suzanne (Crazy Eyes) gives some insight into how mental health in the United States prison system is dealt with, while Homeland shows how it is still highly stigmatized within the US government. And of course, Girls so poignantly tackled OCD with Hannah’s famous Q-Tip scene.
The stigma surrounding mental health issues is still a huge issue and, while there is still much work to be done, I’m glad that slowly but surely we can try to move towards a direction of understanding. TV will never be perfect but I am glad these shows are slowly pushing the envelope.
Have there been any shows that have help shaped your understanding of mental health issues? Comment below!