Finding an accurate representation of mental illness on TV is no small feat. When the media we consume seems to always depict people with mental illness as “dangerous” or “scary,” it can be easy to wonder if compassionate depictions of mental illness exist on TV.
Luckily, a lot of newer shows have been making an effort to “get it right” and show mental illness in a realistic and humanizing way. These shows can evoke some powerful responses in viewers who may be seeing their own struggles accurately represented on screen for the first time. With recommendations from our mental health community, we analyzed eight shows to see how they portrayed mental illness — and included where you can watch them!
1. “This Is Us”
“This Is Us” is an emotional drama that shows how the lives of the Pearson family intersect in unexpected ways. The show has long been praised for the way it has handled anxiety. Most notably was the scene in season one when Randall had a panic attack. Of this scene, community member Sharon E. wrote, “I felt this so much. His performance and the writer’s portrayal of a panic disorder brought on by stress was spot on.”
Even some mental health professionals agree. In an interview with Health magazine, Dr. James Murrough, assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said, “This was a pretty accurate portrayal. When you’re experiencing a panic attack, it can feel like you’re dying or losing your mind,” he said. “The blurring of his vision gave the feeling of detachment or unreality. Depersonalization or feeling disconnected from your body is another common symptom of a panic attack.”
And while most agree the panic attack scene is accurate, some have taken issue with the way Randall’s brother dropped everything he was doing to support him — not because it wasn’t great, but because it wasn’t altogether realistic. In his piece, My One Reservation About the Panic Attack Scene in ‘This Is Us,’ Mighty contributor Matthew Martin-Ellis wrote
I hate to be the guy who takes issue with a well-meaning (and in many ways progressive) television scene, especially one that sheds light on a character struggling with mental illness. But… My concern is with the selfless and beautiful, yet ultimately unrealistic and unfeasible response of the character’s brother… The responses of allies we see in the realm of fiction seem increasingly idealized and impractical.
And while it’s unfortunate that we can’t always expect perfect responses like these from our loved ones, it is nice to see a model for a good way to respond. Additionally, from a representation standpoint, it’s also important the show depicts the mental health struggles of a black man. According to Mental Health America, black men are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than white men, but are consistently more apprehensive about seeking professional help.
Where you can watch: streaming on Hulu.
2. “BoJack Horseman”
“BoJack Horseman,” follows the washed-up 90s TV star (BoJack) and his struggles with addiction, relationships and maintaining his celebrity status, all the while satirizing the entertainment industry and current events. The Netflix show has gained a cult following but is perhaps best known for its accurate portrayal of depression. But the show didn’t necessarily intend for it to be that way. In an interview with The Huffington Post, the show’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg said, “It was never our top priority to be the voice of depression.” He explained they were just trying to capture who the character was.
But regardless of intent, “BoJack Horseman” resonates with many folks who struggle with depression. As Mighty community member Ximena P. commented, “‘BoJack Horseman’ is honestly one of the most realistic depictions of living with anxiety and depression. I love that it shows the ugly sides of depression rather than painting the typical ‘beautiful and tragically sad life.’ It shows the side of feeling numb and empty and honestly not caring about anyone or anything for long periods of time, while having other moments where you care so much it becomes hard to function.”
Though I completely agree that the show does a great job of showing the struggles of depression, I’ll admit, as someone with depression, it was hard for me to watch at times when things hit close to home. Ximena echoed this feeling when she said, “I should probably say that a lot of people find it triggering or depressing. It features alcoholism and other types of substance abuse so, it isn’t always an easy watch.”
Where you can watch: streaming on Netflix.
3. “United States of Tara”
“United States of Tara” follows suburban mother Tara through her journey with dissociative identity disorder (DID) and how it affects all aspects of her life — including her marriage, family and career. Unlike other depictions of DID, “United States of Tara” does not show DID as inherently dangerous, and according to Mighty community member, Astrid N. the show is an “amazing depiction of dissociative identity disorder.”
The show did make efforts to portray DID in an informative an accurate way. As the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation noted, “the producers and scriptwriters sought extensive consultation on DID from some of the world’s most prominent experts on DID, and interviewed and consulted DID patients as well.”
Though the show represents DID fairly in many ways, it isn’t without flaws. For example, each of Tara’s alters is fairly “extreme” in being noticeably distinctive from the other alters, and each of her “transitions” is very apparent. This choice was likely made so viewers could follow the plot visually, but nonetheless, it still doesn’t represent the condition as many people with DID experience it.
In their piece, “13 Misconceptions About Dissociative Identity Disorder,” Mighty contributor Chris Alter wrote,
Often switches between alters are not obvious… When DID develops in childhood, it is to protect the child from trauma and allow them to have as normal a childhood as possible. It is meant to go unnoticed.
Where you can watch: streaming on Hulu.
4. “Parks and Recreation”
Though “Parks and Recreation” is primarily known for its funny characters and moments, some applaud the show for how it depicted depression through the notoriously “happy” character, Chris Traeger. Mighty community member Kari O. said, “The way they show how Chris spirals into depressive episodes was so relatable for me. Because I can be so happy, but one little thing can send me into a complete downhill spiral in minutes.” — Kari O.
This kind of character is so important to show because oftentimes depression doesn’t “look” like what we think it does. While we often generalize depression as being “sad,” the reality is it can sometimes look like the exact opposite. In her piece, 19 Problems Only Happy People With Depression Understand, Mighty contributor Jill Alexandra wrote,
My biggest fear is usually that someone can see right through me. As a result, I sometimes force myself to put on an unnaturally enthusiastic and upbeat persona when I am really in a bad place, out of fear that people will be able to see the truth if I don’t.
Where you can watch: streaming on Netflix.
The show is a comedy-drama that centers on Frank Gallagher, a single father of six children. “Shameless” is also a fan-favorite in the mental health community for its depiction of bipolar disorder, specifically through Ian’s character. As Mighty community member Casey R. said, “I was just diagnosed when I started watching the show. It was comforting to see Ian go through his ups and downs and survive.”
In a promo for the show, actor Cameron Monaghan said he prepared for the role by watching documentaries and reading autobiographies written by people living with bipolar disorder.
The representation of bipolar disorder and how taking medication can be helpful in recovery has resonated with many viewers. In a HelloFlo blog about “Shameless,” Sebastian Zulch wrote:
Watching Ian’s journey has always been heart wrenching for me because I could relate so much. But I appreciated the show’s positive portrayal of mental illness and medicine, which helped normalize my own experiences a little more. As someone who hasn’t been able to hold down a full time job yet, Ian showed me that it’s possible to get to a point where you can thrive in the workplace and properly advocate for yourself when you’re bipolar and on meds.
Where you can watch: streaming on Netflix.
6. “Please Like Me”
“Please Like Me” is an Australian show based on the real-life experiences of show’s star and director Josh Thomas. Perhaps most notable about the show is that it has brought mental health to the forefront by showing depictions of psychiatric hospitalization, panic attacks and depression.
In an interview with Pivot, Thomas said his goal was “doing mental health in a way that I thought was sort of honest and a bit true to life.”
Mighty community member Lisa K. seems to agree. She wrote, “[Josh Thomas’s] mother has bipolar disorder and he later befriends a woman with depression and dates a guy with severe anxiety. They do a great job of portraying the realities of these illnesses. It’s really relatable and real, but also just a really funny show.”
Where you can watch: streaming on Hulu
7. “Jessica Jones”
The Netflix original series “Jessica Jones” was based on a Marvel comic of the same name. The show has been praised for the way it handles post-traumatic stress disorder. Describing the show, Mighty community member Burrow K. wrote:
Jessica Jones’ is hands down the best representation of PTSD I have ever seen. I seriously cried seeing my struggle depicted so accurately on TV. She wasn’t perfect, she wasn’t depicted in the way society has deemed “acceptable.” She wasn’t the strong, silent survivor: her survival was messy, her flashbacks unpredictable, her coping mechanisms possibly less than ideal… I could go on and on and on.
The show’s focus on trauma and mental illness was intentional. When asked about the way the show dealt with abuse, rape and PTSD, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg told the Los Angeles Times:
Playing them as honestly as possible was very much the objective from the beginning. The tone is meant to be very grounded and real, so you have to be very grounded and real with whatever subjects you’re dealing with. So there was no glossing this over. It was really an exploration of a survivor and her healing, to the degree that she does, in facing those demons quite literally.
Where you can watch: streaming on Netflix.
8. “Lady Dynamite”
“Lady Dynamite,” tells the loosely-based real-life story of stand-up comedian and actress Maria Bamford, and her experience being hospitalized for bipolar disorder. The show has been lauded for its realistic and comedic portrayal of mental illness.
In a review by Slate magazine, Evelyn Anne Clauson wrote:
Instead of treating mental illness as an obstacle for a character to overcome, or a device to explain otherwise nonsensical actions, ‘Lady Dynamite’builds it into the very fabric of its world. It mines tragedy for comedy, showing us a character who is herself struggling to find the humor within her own terrible pain. It’s the rare comedy that shows us that the reality of mental illness is that darkness can coexist with creativity and fun and hope.
Mighty community member Emily B. agreed, adding, “It’s funny and relatable, but at the same time consistently deals with how difficult it is for someone to manage bipolar symptoms, especially working in a field like the entertainment industry that really promotes a more ‘manic’ performance style and schedule. Huge thank you to Maria Bamford for putting herself out there like that.”
Where you can watch: streaming on Netflix.
Did we miss a show? Share your favorites the comments below.
Photos via “BoJack Horseman” and Marvel’s “Jessica Jones” Facebook pages
Yesterday I finally had the courage to see 22 July. In Norway that day will never be the same. It’s our 9/11, our tragedy. Norway is a small country, so we were all directly or indirectly touched by Anders Behring Breivik’s mass murder of 77 innocent people the 22th of July. Seeing the movie was hard, but necessary. I remember how surprised I was by the reactions after the attack. How the trial focused on our core values, democracy and not giving in to fear and love. I remember how people gathered in our cities, showing their respect with roses that littered the streets. News headlines from other countries also reflected the surprise: Where was the outrage ? We were suffering, but we didn’t respond with bullets or hate.
Fear is dangerous. Maybe I’m a bit naive, but the answer is not to monitor everyone to be more secure. Crimes does occur and we must always try to minimize it. I have worked with trauma through my career, and know the pain sufferers and survivors endure. But the solution is not to become overly suspicious. Some countries are closing their borders after terror attacks, to protect their own people. But we are all humans, and by having a court system where we defend people who’s committed crimes we condone, we feel stronger. Revenge seldom helps, but trying to move on and focusing on what’s important, can. This doesn’t mean that feelings of hate and rage aren’t valid. We must be allowed to feel grief and the unfairness of meaningless acts from a person like Breivik. Healing is being able to feel different emotions at the same time and realize that it’s okay. We can feel strong and weak at the same time, love and hate. But how we act on those feelings, is what matters.
I have just watched “Manchester by the sea”. Instead of writing what it`s about, I have included the trailer so you can see for yourself.
The movie was good. It almost made me cry several time, and even the old man sitting next to me seemed like he was moved by the story. How can you not be? The main theme as I see it, is living with guilt. We all know how terrible guilt is. It can lead to havoc in our lives, because unprocessed, you can`t focus on what you have and give it your all. I will not spoil the movie by writing about the end, but I found the ending led to more questions than answers. When I think back that is one of the things that made the movie watchable: The characters were believable and complex. There was no good or bad, just a mix of different emotions in one messed-up man.
We all make mistakes. And in this movie, the small ones have huge consequences. Just thinking about it makes me shudder. There is such a thin line between happiness and devastation. The worst thing is that you never see it coming. And if you had a chance to do things differently, you might do something else that turns your life around. Being reminded of how fragile life is, luckily makes us think about what we do with our lives and appreciate what we have more. For some, movies like these might be a reminder of what was lost and never can come back. I must admit that I started to think about people I have lost, but that is a part of the process. You can not ignore reality. You can not ignore the fact that life can be horrible. But you can decide how you spend your next day. What you say to people. If you smile to a stranger. If you tell your brother that you are sorry for something you have done.
In Manchester by the sea, some things could not be undone. But he could move on. And he tried it as best as he could.
At the moment I am listening to several audiobooks at once. Most of them relate to the same theme: Parallel universes. Some might have seen the movie “sliding doors” and if you are like me, it is interesting to philosophize about how life would have been if we made different choices. I am often stuck in my past, trying to fix my mistakes until my head aces. It is almost like ice-cream melting and dripping on the floor: The sweetness blended with the dirt on the floor. The bitter-sweetness of it all, is tiresome. I am really trying hard not to let this effect me, and to trust the universe. In my heart of hearts, I do believe that everything will make sense in the end. That I will find the right door, finding my faith at the other side. In fact, this dream has been with me since I made my first song as a teenager. The lyric goes like this:
“This is magic. What we search for now. Love is the ingredient to the things we search for. In the dark of the night, we will find it. It will lie on the floor, like an open door. And then I see this magic thing. I will pick it up with no regret at all. The magic thing that is you”
Are you my mystical, magical object? Have I found the key that will open the right doors? Am I finally able to get out of the labyrinth my mind has created?
I think you are.
We love trolls in Norway. You will find miniature versions of them in every tourist shop and we have many fairytales where they are the main characters. We even had small keychains with trolls, with blue, green or red hair. I had one of those, and loved it.
When I started working as a psychologist, I had a client who was around 10 when I saw him. He had anger issues, and we used play therapy to work on them. He was very gifted and creative, so it was a joy for the both of us to manage emotions in a non-threatening way. One of the things we did, was to make a drawing of his inner raging child. He had an aptitude for painting, and when he came back for his next session he had made his ‘angry troll’ in red colors. It was a symbalization of all the frustration he felt, but didn’t know how to express.
One of my favorite Norwegian movies is ‘Trolljegerne’. It is a funny portrayal of some troll hunters that try to kill dangerous trolls that lurk around in the forest. The humor combined with an unusual plot, gives the movie an unmistakable edge. If you haven’t seen it, I do recommend it.
So, what is this fuss about the trolls about? I think much of the charm I combining mythological scary creatures with something that can be really cute. Trolls are big and angry, but we have transformed them and made them our pets. In the movie, they are portrayed as stupid, but dangerous. If you keep out of their way, they will not attack. But you shouldn’t be fooled either. Because they are hunters, ready to strike if anyone invades their territories.
Humans can be like that too. We all have good and bad sides, and on most days we are able to keep our inner trolls satisfied. But if somebody comes to close and trigger our weak spots, we go into fight mode.
For now I want to think about the cute trolls, but I am mindful that they can easily become beasts like the gremlings did when they touched water.
I’m not frightened. I’m not frightened of anything. The more I suffer, the more I love. Danger will only increase my love. It will sharpen it, forgive its vice. I will be the only angel you need. You will leave life even more beautiful than you entered it. Heaven will take you back and look at you and say: Only one thing can make a soul complete and that thing is love.”
After reading this post about the movie “Dangerous Minds” I will without doubt see the movie one more time. When I saw it the first time, I probably did not understand the implications and importance of it, and I did not even know it was based on a true stories. I have been very interested in true, inspirational stories the last two years, since it gives me so much energy to read them. Maybe that is the way I survive as a psychologist, hearing tough stories all the time? Somehow, I need to counteract it with good, to feel more balanced inside.
Now I am starting on my last two days of the holiday I had. Mostly I have been scrapbooking, reading and written a bit on my blog. I have been with Mr. Nice Guy, and yesterday I was with my family. I had a bike tour and today I`ve been with my father today. We have talked about his adoption, which we never have done before. I also tried to ask him a bit about childhood memories, but he couldn`t remember anything specific.
Tomorrow is the last dayh with mr Nice Guy and on sunday I will probably scrapbook and read some more. What are your plans for the weekend? Do you have any book or movie recommendations for me?
– submitted by Ruth Levine, MD, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston
This summary was derived from several of the articles listed in the resource list, from the suggestions of our ADMSEP colleagues, and from our own personal experience. We have not personally reviewed all of the movies on the list, and suggest you view any film before choosing it for teaching purposes.
Axis I Disorders
|Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders||Bipolar Disorder/Mania|
|Copycat (panic/agoraphobia)||Mr. Jones|
|As good as it gets (OCD)||Network|
|The touching tree (Childhood OCD)||Seven Percent Solution|
|Fourth of July (PTSD)||Captain Newman, MD|
|The Deer Hunter (PTSD)||Sophieís Choice|
|Ordinary People (PTSD)||Sheís So Lovely|
|Faithful||I Never Promised You a Rose Garden|
|The Seventh Veil||Clean Shaven|
|The Shrike||Through a Glass Darkly|
|Itís a Wonderful Life (Adjustment disorder)||An Angel at my Table|
|The Wrong Man (Adjustment disorder)||Personal|
|Dissociative Disorders||Man Facing Southwest|
|The Three Faces of Eve||Madness of King George (Psychosis due to Porphyria)|
|The Singing Detective|
|The Long Weekend (etoh)||The Days of Wine and Roses (etoh)|
|Barfly (etoh)||Basketball Diaries (opiates)|
|Kids (hallucinogens, rave scenes, etc.)||Loosing Isaiah (crack)|
|Reefer Madness||Under the Volcano|
|Long Day’s Journey into Night||Ironweed|
|The Man with the Golden Arm (heroin)||A Hatful of Rain (heroin)|
|Synanon (drug treatment)||The Boost (cocaine)|
|The 7 Percent Solution (cocaine induced mania)||Iím Dancing as Fast as I can (substance induced organic mental disorder)|
|The Best Little Girl in the World (made for TV)-Anorexia||Kateís Secret (made for TV)-Bulemia|
Axis II Disorders
|Cluster A||Cluster B|
|Remains of the Day- Schizoid PD||Borderline PD|
|Taxi Driver-Schizotypal PD||Fatal Attraction|
|The Caine Mutiny- Paranoid PD||Play Misty for Me|
|The Treasure of Sierra Madre -Paranoid PD||Frances|
|Cluster C||Looking for Mr. Goodbar|
|Sophieís Choice-Dependent PD||Histrionic PD|
|The Odd Couple-OCPD||Bullets over Broadway|
|Gone with the Wind|
|A Streetcare Named Desire|
|A Clockwork Orange|
|All that Jazz||Taxi Driver|
|Stardust Memories||Single White Female|
|Zelig||The King of Comedy|
|Jerry Maguire||Triumph of Will|
|Citizen Kane||Best Boy|
|Lawrence of Arabia||Bill|
|Patton||Bill, On His Own|
|Family||Early Adult Issues|
|The Field||The Graduate|
|Kramer vs Kramer||Spanking the Monkey|
|Diary of a Mad Housewife|
|Betrayal||Latency and Adolescent Issues|
|Whoís Afraid of Virginia Woolfe||Stand by Me|
|The Stone Boy||Smooth Talk|
|The Great Santini|
|Doctor/Patient Relationship||Boundary Violations|
|The Doctor||The Prince of Tides|
|Idealized “Dr. Marvelous” Psychotherapy|
|Spellbound||Suddenly Last Summer|
|The Snake Pit||Captain Newman, MD|
|The Three Faces of Eve||Ordinary People|
|Good Will Hunting|
University of Texas Medical Branch
summary was derived from several of the articles listed in the resource list, from the suggestions of our ADMSEP colleagues, and from our own personal experience. We have not personally reviewed all of the movies on the list, and suggest you view any
For me, emotions have meaning. Me and my mother loved watching sappy movies together, and that must have been when I learned how life CAN be: Full of tragedy. But it can also be get better, at the end. I learned: No matter how bad and sad it is, it will eventually work out fine. Maybe that`s why I never have run away from love, because I would rather hurt than not feel anything at all. I have sought emotions actively, and now I am so lucky I get to work with it, every day as a psychologist. I get touched by how people fight, I get a bit mad when I hear how unfair someone has been treated (but containing it, like psychologists must do) and feel energetic at the end of the day. I cheer and yell inside when someone accomplish a change they wanted. This change can be finally saying the unsaid, crying in front om someone they think will hate them, or feeling depression lifting, just a bit.
Even if it might feel small to them, it`s big if you think about it. It`s like one of my supervisors said when I was at the neurorehabilitation clinic: Even if wiggling a little toe, can sound like a small thing, it’s really amazing, because it means the hard work led to something that wasn`t before. It’s a step in the right direction, and that memory can never be taken from you. I feel that way, every time my patient do something new; If they choose not to overeat, if they open their mouth to say they are afraid, if the stop drinking one of 4 days. It doesn`t mean that everything will be good, but it means it is potential there, and potential means hope. Hope is the most wonderful thing, if no one believed the “impossible” where would we be today?
I am not afraid of emotions. Of course there can be too much of it at times, but if someone shout at me over the phone, I rather try to see it from that persons side (is it easier to be mad than to show vulnerability?) than to run and hide. People seeking help, are doing just that. They want something to change, and I can help them if they want to. The have already taken the first step, they are tired of running and hiding and want to face whatever ghosts they tried to leave behind. When they finally do, they are heroes, each and every one of them. My job is to understand the hardship of this struggle, and try to give them the best veapons available.
I have to let them go their way, but I can show them what I think. I can say it is okay to try even if it`s scary. I can encourage and share the pain with them, because I know personally that it`s worth it.
The thoughts so far remind me of one of my favorite movies; The bothersome man.
It’s about a man “doomed” to live in a place where no feelings exist, no good ones and no bad ones either. ( http://politfilm.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/the-bothersome-man) This turns out to be a nightmare, and honestly, I do agree. If I didn`t feel how good it can be to have a cup of tea after a busy day, what`s the point? I actually feel symptahy for people who because of some reason or another, simply are numb, and don`t have any feelings. A lot of people getting medication worry about this, and sometimes I really can see the argument. If we get better and better at removing all bad emotions, will the good be removed too? Will we stop caring for the world at all? Be completely indifferent?
If we never got “mirrored” when we feel anger, sadness or other feelings, we can develop holes that are harder to heal than bruises on the outside. Without feelings, there is no fuel. No fuel that propel us towards the goal of a better world.
- Are we caught in a happy trap? (theage.com.au)
- Why We Eat When We’re Not Hungry (healthbeauty4426.wordpress.com)
- i’m not qualified. but here is my life advice. (kandidlykatie.wordpress.com)
- Day 7: Emotion Put your energy in motion (danielleonadiet.com)
- Some myths about recovery (tacklingbpd.com)
- Depression – Working your way OUT… There is HELP (happinessrevolution.wordpress.com)
- Things are not always black and white… (champagneandstarz.wordpress.com)
- Understanding Fear and Sadness (celestiallifecoaching.wordpress.com)