A bullied high school student feeling alone and depressed. A washed-up TV star wrestling with his inner demons. A successful business executive who experiences panic attacks.
Television characters today are more complex than ever — and certainly more relatable to viewers who struggle with mental illness. A topic that was once stigmatized and seldom portrayed is now being widely embraced by producers.
Perhaps this is because mental illness touches most of our lives. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, in any given year, one in five people will experience a mental health problem. By age 40, half of Canadians either have, or have had, a mental illness. The stigma is also waning: a 2017 survey found that almost half of Canadians feel more comfortable talking about their mental health compared to two years earlier.
Good TV can add to this conversation by breaking the ice on difficult topics and offering characters whose experiences mirror our own. But with this new subject matter comes an ethical responsibility, and some shows are falling short.
Consider the controversial Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why, which debuted in 2017. The main character, Hannah, dies by suicide, but not before making a series of 13 audio tapes she distributes to her high school friends. Each tape is about a particular classmate and how that person helped drive her to suicide. “I’m about to tell you the story of my life,” Hannah narrates on one of the tapes. “More specifically, why my life ended. If you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.”
Naturally, mental health experts raised red flags at the show, which is targeted to teens. In addition to a graphic and unsettling scene depicting Hannah’s death, the series also advances the disturbing idea of suicide as a method of revenge.
The second season, released last spring, isn’t much better. While it comes with a new disclaimer before the first episode, warning that the show isn’t for everyone, the storyline features the same disregard for the complexities of mental illness. This time, Hannah returns as a “ghost,” watching how the fallout of her death continues to affect her classmates. The plot device recklessly brushes over a simple and sad reality: the permanence of suicide. When you die, you are not able to witness the aftermath.
Writing in the online magazine Slate, Boston psychiatrist Meredith Gansner shares her concerns about 13 Reasons Why and other Netflix productions geared to adolescents: “I can’t seem to find my patients, actual teenagers with psychiatric illness, in these portrayals.”
She adds that the most shocking problem is the shows’ failure to depict the proper treatment of mental illness. “If I was a teenager, my takeaway from these shows would be ‘Lots of teenagers have psychiatric illnesses, but good luck doing something about it.’”
Not all television shows are failing their audiences. Targeted to slightly older viewers than the teen dramas, two popular series, BoJack Horseman and This Is Us, have been lauded for their accurate portrayal of depression and anxiety disorders.
In BoJack Horseman, the titular character is a former sitcom star with depression. Throughout the series, he achieves some renewed career success but also gives in to his unhealthy vices, pushes his loved ones away and tortures himself with negative thoughts. Season 5, released in September, sees him wrestling with an opioid addiction.
Strangely, this animated series about a talking horse is one of the most human shows on television today. “The reason I cling to BoJack in a way that I don’t other characters who suffer from depression . . . is because of the raw honesty,” writes Julia Alexander on the website Polygon. “Like BoJack, I’ve tried every kind of external validation, from dating for the wrong reasons to taking on an abundance of projects that people may recognize me for, as a method of asserting my self-worth.”
In a similar vein, the tearjerker family drama This is Us portrays anxiety in an accessible way. One of the main characters, Randall, has lived with panic attacks since he was a teenager. In one scene, he has an attack with classic symptoms: blurry vision, sweatiness, trembling. The experience stops him in his tracks, but he’s not in hysterics; it’s simply an ongoing obstacle he faces in life.
Lexi Purvis writes in the Daily Mississippian that this episode marks an important change in television for those like her who have anxiety disorders. She says she’d “never been able to put into words exactly how it feels” to have an anxiety attack until she watched the scene with Randall. “The pain that was so accurately depicted in This Is Us is real.” Characters like BoJack and Randall prove that it’s possible to make a successful television show without making a spectacle of mental illness. Viewers identify with them because their internal struggles are depicted genuinely. Done right, these shows can help break down stigma and give viewers a better understanding of their own mental illnesses.
“People have told me, ‘I talk about your show with my therapist to describe how I am feeling. Your show gives me language to identify the way that I see the world that before now I was unable to articulate,” Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator of BoJack Horseman, says in a recent interview with the blog slashfilm.com. “That is not necessarily our mission when we write every episode . . . but the fact that that is a result does make me very proud.”
Alison Shouldice is a writer and editor in Toronto.
This story originally appeared in The Observer's November 2018 edition with the title "Reality TV"
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