How Is Mental Health Portrayed On TV?

Television producers don’t want to commit to characters with mental health disorders. It’s understandable. It’s difficult to structure a story around characters that may not react ‘normally’ to life. How do you write a tv show about someone who doesn’t leave the house? Or someone who no longer enjoys life? Obviously, no singular person’s experience with mental illness is the same, but there are people living their lives in situations like these and they deserve to be represented on screen.

You’re the Worst is a comedy about a group of hilariously narcissistic LA-dweller where two of the four main characters have diagnosed mental illnesses. Gretchen, a cynical day-drinker and a mouthy PR agent, suffers from clinical depression, and Edgar is a war veteran with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In an episode named Twenty-two (in reference to the disputed statistic that twenty-two American veterans die by suicide every day), the show broke away from its usual tone to spend an entire episode on Edgar. We experience the world through his eyes; he sees snipers on the roadside. His brain is telling him that he’s still living in a war zone. He takes eleven medications, that he calls ‘a one size fits all cocktail of shut-up pills’. In a standout moment, a counsellor commends Edgar on having the courage to seek help, and his response is to ask if it should take courage to get the help you deserve. They answer is no, but that’s rarely the reality.

PTSD is also tackled in Jessica Jones. Jessica has two traumas affecting her; surviving the car accident that killed her family, then later in life, an abusive relationship with the show’s antagonist Kilgrave. Her stress manifests itself in her self-deprecating humour, alcohol dependence. The audience is placed almost entirely in Jessica’s mind, allowing to anyone to understand the difficulties mental illness can present.

Please Like Me is an Australian show that follows Josh as he stumbles through the pitfalls of modern life. In the wake of his mother Rose’s suicide attempt and bipolar diagnosis, he meets a host of other characters that are suffering from mental health issues. Arnold, who has an anxiety disorder, has a stand out moment when he explains  some irrational things that he does because of his anxiety, like visiting places early to make sure he knows where the exits are or hiding in bathrooms on nights out. His confessions are met with support, not ridicule. Hannah, who suffers from depression and self-harm, is confronted with a common catch-22 of taking psychiatric medication; cope with the disorder without medication or take the pills and cope with the symptoms of taking them. The show goes to great lengths to portray the feelings of complete uselessness that the family and friends of people with mental health difficulties can feel. While also emphasising the mundanity of it all; mental illness is a fact of everyday life.

Bipolar Disorder is commonly used for ‘dramatic’ storylines on television. Recent depictions have been met with varying degrees of praise; from the imperfect attempts by Homeland and Empire, to the more enlightened efforts of Shameless and norwegian show Skam.

Shameless, despite it’s often nonsensical storylines, has devoted a substantial amount of time to it’s bipolar characters Monica and her son Ian, as well as it’s agoraphobic character Sheila. A stand-out scene is the speech that Ian makes when he is told that his bipolar diagnosis prevents him from working as an EMT. He sheds some light on the topic of discrimination against mentally ill people in the workplace, and concludes with the important reminder that people with mental illnesses are not to blame for their hardship.

Mr. Robot is important because the story manages to remain within the thriller genre without making Elliot the villain or the victim. It’s made clear that Elliot has depression and social anxiety, but also suffers from delusions and morphine addiction. Elliot is an unreliable narrator, we never know his official diagnoses, what seems like schizophrenia, is later revealed to be Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder).

Yet, the most telling sign of Mr. Robot’s importance in terms of pop culture’s conception of mental illnesses was that much of the media assumed that Elliot’s disorder was exaggerated or fictional. An open letter went viral, in which an anonymous DID sufferer criticized the media’s assumptions and misunderstandings about the disorder. The stigma surrounding DID is so strong that patients are actively discouraged from speaking publicly about their illness. Subsequently, it’s rarely discussed in pop culture. It’s the reason why the film Split was considered harmful, because it further blurred the lines between fiction and the real illness that affects more than 70 million people worldwide.

Similarly, schizophrenia rarely appears outside the horror genre. Orange Is the New Black broke this cycle with their character Lolly. Her delusions about government conspiracies were a form of comic relief and people often took advantage of her mental state. It’s unfortunate that her story was given such a small timeline, but her backstory accurately portrays how easily someone can homeless and incarcerated, simply because their mental illness is not compatible with current society. An estimated 6% of the American population have a severe mental illness, but within the homeless population, it’s 25%. Furthermore, 73% of women in US prisons have mental health issues. Considering how staggering that rate is, why haven’t we seen more characters with mental health issues represented on this show?

OCD is largely misunderstood, though Glee and Girls made attempts at accurate depictions. It’s trivialised by modern day slang, it’s a word now used to refer to organisational habits, when the real and often debilitating disorder involves so much more than that. (If you would never cough and apologise for being ‘so Cystic Fibrosis’, then why would you ever say ‘I’m so OCD’.) Similarly, eating sisorders have a habit of appearing on television as undeveloped and temporary predicaments for slim, popular girls with parental issues (Hanna in Pretty Little Liars, Blair in Gossip Girl, or even Cassie in Skins). My Mad Fat Diary was a wonderful and criminally underappreciated exception. The likelihood of a character with a personality disorder appearing on television as anything other than a serial killer is incredibly slim.

For every socially withdrawn tv character that is used as the punchline to a joke, or every crime scene investigation show that puts the mentally ill character in the criminal spotlight, there are a multitude of real people living with mental health difficulties. Be aware and be kind.


Muireann O’Shea – Film Editor

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