The importance of accurate media representation when it comes to mental health cannot be overstated. Mass media, particularly television and film, gives us insight into groups of people that we may not commonly interact with. However, when relying on false stereotypes, it can negatively color our perceptions and attitudes. This has been the history of mental health as shown on TV.
According to a 2019 study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, only 7% of TV characters experience a mental health condition, as compared to 18.9% of the U.S. population. Of these characters with a mental health condition, 25% were shown to be acting violently, 38% were disparaged by other characters, and a full 50% were shown in a humorous or mocking light. All of this just reinforces the stigmatization of mental illness.
Fortunately, some shows have flipped the script, deciding to put in the work to portray mental health in a realistic way. Here are six examples that have gone way beyond the stereotypes in their representation of mental health:
- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
At first glance, this CW rom-com about a lawyer who moves cross-country to pursue her summer camp ex seems like it would just be another take on the shallow crazy ex-girlfriend trope. Instead, it's a feminist show that aims to examine a number of stereotypes, including those revolving around mental health.
From the start, the main character, Rebecca Bunch, is shown to be a complex individual that we can relate to. We feel compassion for her even as we recognize her behaviour as being self-destructive. And by following her mental health journey, we gain a some good insight into what having a mental health condition is really like.
For example, one of the storylines in season three focuses on Rebecca finally receiving an accurate diagnosis. This is a crucial step for many people, Rebecca included, and she's thrilled to think that all her problems will be solved. But, crucially, the show doesn't stop here. A diagnosis isn't a cure and recovery is a process — Crazy Ex-Girlfriend makes sure not to shy away from this, portraying the ups and downs of working with a therapist, the fear of being labeled forever by your mental illness, and the stigma of medication.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a great example of a show that uses humor (as well as wild musical numbers) to show a serious issue without trivializing or mocking it.
Stream it on Netflix.
- The Magicians
One of the best things about the fantasy genre is that it allows you to escape from reality. Often included within this escapism is the assumption that all the problems we currently face would not exist in a world with magic. But the truth is, as The Magicians captures all too well, magic is not a cure-all.
When Quentin Coldwater finds himself accepted to a grad school for magicians, after having spent time in a psychiatric ward for depression, he believes that he's finally found a place where he belongs. And when he learns that Fillory, the supposedly made-up land in his favorite books (think Narnia, but on acid), is real, it seems as if everything he ever dreamed about has come true. But, even as he sits on one of the Fillorian thrones, he is just as depressed as before.
Magic can't cure depression. It can't for Quentin, and it can't for Eliot, another magician who hides behind pithy remarks and who is constantly self-medicating with alcohol. Magic doesn't help when Fen, Eliot's Fillorian wife, experiences depression and psychosis after the loss of her daughter to the fairy queen.
Another character who finds magic unable to provide a fix is Julia — Quentin's best friend — who experiences PTSD after having been raped by a trickster god. While the world's magic allows for Julia to express her trauma more visibily, it can't just erase the experience. Julia is constantly working through her trauma, up to and including in the series finale. That being said, she is not defined by the sexual violence she experienced — over time, Julia heals and while the trauma doesn't disappear, she is, eventually, able to live a whole life.
Mental illness is a regular part of life and The Magicians does a great job of recognizing that fact.
Stream it on Netflix.
- My Mad Fat Diary
According to the USC Annenberg study, only 6% of the TV characters with a mental health condition are teenagers. This percentage is very disproportionate to the real incidence rate — according to WHO, suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15 to 19-year-olds and an estimated 10-20% of adolescents globally experience mental health conditions. This is why representation in shows like My Mad Fat Diary is so important.
Set in the small town of Stamford, Lincolnshire in the mid-90's, My Mad Fat Diary centers around 16-year-old Rae Earl, who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt, and her efforts to reconnect with her best friend, and sometimes rival, Chloe. Throughout the show, Rae struggles between her desire to start over at her new school with her new friends and returning to the comfort and stability of the hospital and the friends she made there, a conflict that is easy to understand given the stigmatization of mental illness.
One of the things My Mad Fat Diary does best is its portrayal of Rae's eating disorder. In mass media, eating disorders are often associated with being stick-thin — Rae's character provides a great contrast to this, and provides an outlet to analyze how fatphobia affects a person's mental health. Over the show's three seaons, Rae deals with her eating disorder — which is intrinsincally linked to her chronic anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal ideation — and viewers are able to get a deep look at what such an illness really entails, especially given that the story is told through Rae's diary entries, providing a searing, personal perspective.
In addition to Rae, the show also engenders empathy in its portrayal of Danny "Two Hats," a co-resident at Rae's hospital who suffers from paranoia, Tix, another hospital friend who also suffers from an eating disorder, and even Chloe, who struggles with low self-esteem, leading to self-destructive behaviour.
Mental health portrayals on teen dramas, when present at all, are often less than adequate — just look at 13 Reasons Why or Pretty Little Liars. It's shows like My Mad Fat Diary that make all the difference.
- BoJack Horseman
Though one might not expect it from an animated comedy series, BoJack Horseman has garned national praise for providing one of the best representations of depression on TV. Revolving around a former sit-com star — who also happens to be a talking horse — this series takes a deep dive into what depression and additction really look like.
One of the most important takeaways from the show, an idea that is emphasized over and over, is that success and privilege do not affect BoJack's depression (in many ways similar to how magic is portrayed in The Magicians). Too often, media shows characters simply willing their depression away, strengthening the misconception that depression isn't a real illness. While privilege can determine how your actions are perceived — shown in the show by how BoJack often gets a free pass for his destructive actions, as compared to Diane — it can't make you happy.
Another thing BoJack Horseman gets right is its depiction of the many different rections people have to depression and the subtleties involved. While BoJack engages in self-destructive behaviour, Diane withdraws into herself, and Mr. Peanutbutter hides it all behind a smile. These characters all support each other, and while they may engage in toxic behaviour at times, depression is not treated as an excuse. Part of supporting a friend means calling them out when their behaviour is unacceptable.
It's refreshing to see such an accurate portrayal of depression and mental illness on TV, even if it can be hard to watch at times. But with each emotional downer, there is also a light moment that reminds us there is hope that something better is coming, even if it doesn't always feel that way.
Stream it on Netflix.
- You're the Worst
You're the Worst follows two rather narcisstic characters — Gretchen and Jimmy — as they try to maintain a relationship. Gretchen, we find out in a moving scene in season 2, is clinically depressed. And though she is a rom-com character, this depression doesn't just disappear when things are going good. We watch as she self-medicates and self-sabotages in a cyclical pattern, because depression is a life-long battle that doesn't stop, no matter how happy you should be.
Jimmy's friend and roommate Edgar provides another great portrayal of mental health on TV. An Iraqi War veteran with a history of substance abuse, Edgar suffers from PTSD. While his mental health condition is referred to and treated with grace throughout the show, it is really in the season three episode "Twenty Two" that we see Edgar as more than just a kind and comedic side character. The episode recaps the event's of the previous episode, but all through Edgar's eyes, and we learn what triggers his PTSD and what effects words and actions can have when someone is suffering from severe mental trauma. It's a searing look at how the military-industrial complex has failed to support veterans and how small something can be to make a difference.
Like many of the shows on this list, You're the Worst uses humor to tackle mental illness, but, again, like the other shows, it does it in a way that gets it right
- Lady Dynamite
Starring comedian Maria Bamford playing a fictionalized version of herself, Lady Dynamite focuses on Maria's efforts to get her life back on track after a severe manic episode led her spend six months in recovery for bipolar II disorder.
Bipolar disorder is one of those mental health conditions that's rarely represented accurately on TV. Examples of subpar portrayals include Homeland, which uses the bipolar disorder of the main character, Carrie Mathison, to explain her "genius" and to create drama when things are getting a bit slow; and Law and Order: SVU, which has historically conflated mental illness with violence. Lady Dynamite, on the other hand, refreshingly shows the complexities of living with mental illness.
Maria is shown to have a fulfilling career, good friends, and a healthy relationship, even as she goes through various ups and downs. None of these things erase her bipolar disorder (just as success can't cancel out depression), but she is not defined by her condition. In addition, while TV shows tend to focus on the manic episodes involved with bipolar disorder, the reality is episodes of depression are generally much longer and there is plenty of normalcy inbetween. All of this is shown in Lady Dynamite, and is probably due to the fact that, like many of the shows listed, it was written by someone who actually had experience with this mental health condition.
Stream it on Netflix.
While these shows prove that there is some positive representation of mental health on TV, there is still much progress to be made. For one, as evident from the shows listed above, the majority of the mental health portrayals on TV feature white characters — 68%, according to the USC Annenberg study. In addition, while some mental health conditions — including depression and PTSD — are becoming more humanely portrayed on our screens, others continue to be represented in very negative ways. For example, schizophrenia is still more often than not associated with violence, even though those diagnosed with schizophrenia are up to 14 times more at risk of being victimized compared with being arrested as a perpetrator. These shows have provided a good basis for positive representation of mental health on TV, but it's up to the media industry to continue the work of depicting mental health realistically and with care, even if it takes a little more thought and effort.