10 TV programmes that portrayed mental health well
PUBLISHED: 15:09 01 February 2018 | UPDATED: 15:28 01 February 2018
From Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to My Mad Fat Diary, The Sopranos to Sesame Street, there are some amazing TV shows that tackle mental health issues in a respectful, honest AND entertaining way. We look at 10 of the best.
Making a drama out of a crisis: it’s a tough job to get mental health issues right in TV programmes, but drama and soap operas have enormous power to shape public attitudes towards an illness which affects one in four people.
A quarter of TV viewers suffering from mental health problems have been prompted to seek help after following mental health storylines, according to a new poll by mental health charity Mind which commissioned a survey to ask British adults how soap and drama storylines affected their attitudes to mental illness.
More than 50 per cent said that watching a plot which involved a character living with mental health issues had helped them improve their understanding of those issues while one in three men with personal experience of a mental health problem said they would be more likely to seek help after watching a relatable character on screen.
Drama storylines can help people who feel isolated realise that they are not alone and play a vital role in signposting the help and support that is available to them.
But one in four people also said that their belief in a link between mental illness and violence has come from TV and film portrayals of severe mental illnesses and were unaware that drug and alcohol abuse poses a far bigger risk factor in violent crime than mental health issues.
With so many films and TV shows portraying mental health as a reason why people offend, or are dangerous in some way, it’s refreshing to know that there are plenty of TV dramas (many of them recent) that redress the balance. Here are 10 of them.
10 TV shows to watch that tackle mental health issues well
1) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Rebecca Bunch is a real-estate lawyer who works in New York and, after bumping into her ex-boyfriend Josh, decides to follow him to California in a bid to win him back. Rebecca suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder and the show has won praise for its portrayal of mental health. It illustrates that people who have mental health issues are far more than their diagnosis and brilliantly depicts how nuanced the illness is. AND it has big musical numbers in it.
2) This is Us: I love This is Us (are you listening, Channel 4? WHY HASN’T IT BEEN ON YET?) but it hasn’t enjoyed the same success in the UK as it has in the US where it is massive. One of its story arcs is Randall’s battle with anxiety, which not only highlights the terror of panic attacks but also illustrates that people from all walks of life can find themselves at the mercy of anxiety, even if they are high-achieving success stories. We also saw the importance of recognition from those around people who live with anxiety when Randall’s brother Kevin abandoned his play in order to be there for him. Randall serves as a reminder that everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about.
3) Lady Dynamite: Comedian Maria Bamford plays a fictionalised version of herself making a return to everyday life after treatment at a mental health facility. It’s optimistic, keeps you on your toes with three timelines, has a racoon called Randall and talking pugs. We see Maria’s breakdowns, hospitalisation and recovery and watch her exaggerated life living with bipolar disorder (“Actually, I’m bipolar II,” she tells her life coach, to which her life coach replies, “right, which means you’re twice as hard to stay friends with.”). Netflix has just announced that it won’t be picking up a third series – shame.
4) BoJack Horseman: Why the long face? An animated series for adults, BoJack somehow manages to make depression laugh-out-loud funny without compromising people who live with mental health issues. Especially season four. BoJack, voiced by Will Arnett, is a talking horse who was a star in the 1990s but is now in his 50s, washed-up and chasing a life long since past with the help of his agent, who is a cat. From the black hole of self-destruction, BoJack continually struggles to get better and finds himself on an emotional rollercoaster that many will relate to.
5) The Sopranos: At its heart, The Sopranos is about a man who goes to see a psychiatrist to help him live with the crippling depression he feels he’s inherited from his equally depressed mother. From Tony’s first panic attack to his continued desire to conquer his demons through therapy, he may have had his faults, ahem, but he opened up a debate about mental health which made it clear that even tough guys struggle and that it’s OK to ask for help. Taking other life lessons from Tony Soprano may not, however, be advisable.
6) You’re the Worst: The LA Times called You’re the Worst’s There is Not Currently a Problem episode TV’s “best depiction of clinical depression ever”. A rom-com about a pair of misanthropic narcissists doesn’t sound like a great premise for a show, but You’re the Worst manages to offer a bittersweet look at love, life and living with complex mental health issues while also delivering the laughs. The series makes it clear that there are no easy solutions to depression and we watch the protagonists self-sabotage over and over again. As Gretchen tells Jimmy: “I am clinically depressed! I’m sorry I never told you, it slipped my mind. And who knows, with the right attitude, this could be a really fun adventure for everyone!”
7) Mr Robot: Rami Malek plays Elliot Alderson, a cybersecurity engineer and hacker who suffers from social anxiety disorder and clinical depression who is recruited by ‘Mr Robot’ (Christian Slater) to join a group of hacktivists called fsociety. The group plans to destroy all debt records by encrypting the financial date of the largest conglomerate in the world. Elliot’s mental health issues are integral to Mr Robot, but not the driving force: the show highlights the mixture of challenges that he faces, from anxiety to insomnia in a way that is recognisable to those who face similar hurdles to everyday life.
8) Marvel’s Jessica Jones: Krysten Ritter’s portrayal of a woman who lives with post traumatic stress disorder following sexual assault is brutally real – she has terrifying flashbacks, survivor’s guilt, panic attacks and self-medicates with alcohol. Marvel has given us a female superheroine who is relatable yet whose PTSD doesn’t define her. We see the methods she uses to try to combat panic and realise that her struggle is one she faces every day – Jessica also talks openly about her therapy sessions and the stigma that is attached to them.
9) My Mad Fat Diary: Based on the diaries of Rae Earl, who as a 17-year-old was living with extreme anxiety, self-harm and an obsessive-compulsive disorder and who had spent time in a psychiatric unit, actress Sharon Rooney brought Rae from 1989 back to life in this honest, funny and moving series. Like the antithesis of Skins (in which Effy Stonem almost glamorises mental health issues with her ‘complicated and beautiful’ portrayal which makes boys want to ‘fix’ her), Rae is navigating adolescence in all it messy glory and agony.
10) Sesame Street: In 2017, Sesame Street added a new character, Julia, a four-year-old with bright orange hair, a pink dress, a much-loved rabbit toy… and autism. The show has never shied away from tackling the big issues and with Julia, it now has a way to introduce children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder to a wider world and offer young viewers an understanding of what autism means. The show has addressed meltdowns and how to explain why children with autism may react in unusual ways to situations to other youngsters. When Big Bird told Elmo that Julia hadn’t looked up from her painting to greet him, Elmo explained that Julia did like him “it’s just that she has autism. So sometimes it takes her a little longer to do things.” Start ‘em young, teach ‘em good.
* Read writer Cory Varney’s very personal take on the programmes that he hopes will spark conversations about mental health issues, including those he lives with.