TW: Suicide, mental health issues and illnesses
With World Mental Health Day having passed on October 10th, I wanted to continue the conversation around mental health beyond just the one day, and normalize making mental health a priority. It is an issue most of us are experiencing on a daily basis and changing the narrative around mental health means removing the barriers and silences around these topics. Since so much of what we see on television influences us in both positive and negative ways, I thought I’d share some TV shows that accurately depict what it means to be living with a mental illness.
To say that it’s tricky to find a good representation of mental health and mental illness on television is a vast understatement. In the past, most shows would make the villain a mentally ill character (an outdated trope) —or ignore it completely when the plot moves on to something else.
For example, the popular show 13 Reasons Why, was criticised for romanticising suicide instead displayed it in a way to seek revenge. The show also neglected to portray the consequences of someone taking their own life or provide hope for the character trying to reach out for help.
As much as it pains me to say it, another example is The Joker, the one with Joaquin Phoenix. The movie highlights how society fears the unknown, in this case it was his illness, and ostracizes those who don’t particularly “fit in.” When he stops taking his meds and suddenly becomes violent and plays into the narrative that people with mental illnesses are violent, it leaves the audience with a cluster of harmful stereotypes.
However, in the past couple of years, society has been gradually confronting the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness and changing for the better. Thankfully, there are shows that don’t do that — and they could help to destigmatize mental health and mental illnesses that 1 in 5 people in Canada personally experience every year.
Netflix in particular has released a variety of new shows that highlight what life is like when living with mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and substance abuse.
Shows that offer an accurate and well-rounded portrayal of such conditions, what it means to live with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and others, can help normalize living with these conditions.
Such shows can help you identify with another person’s lived experiences and not make you feel awful about having a mental illness.
Scrolling through Netflix to find a good binge-worthy show during the pandemic, I came across some that I found were relatable to what I was going through.
So, I’ve rounded up my top 5 favourite shows that portray mental illness and mental well-being both realistically and vividly. Whether you’re looking to feel less alone or want to understand mental health better, these are just a few that help in making you feel more relatable in what you're experiencing.
The show, This Is Us, does an amazing job in taking a deep dive into each of the complex character’s backgrounds and in portraying how our past trauma can affect who we are in present times. This show delves into multiple mental health illnesses like depression, anxiety, panic attacks, addictions and unhealthy relationships with food. Also discussed in the show is the mental health of Black men, who are 20% more likely to experience physiological distress than white men—but are less likely to seek help.
The show follows a group of friends who met through their relationship with the main character, Jon Dixon, who dies by suicide during the pilot episode, while putting particular emphasis on the status of mental health in the Black community. A Million Little Things is another show that powerfully reflects mental health struggles experienced by Black men by showing how racism and slavery have had a significant impact on the Black community and their well-being. The show explores the different reasons behind the thoughts, feelings, and circumstances that can cause self-decay within a healthy looking exterior of outwardly perceived happiness.
Although this was just a glimpse of what it’s like to be dating as a bipolar woman, the show tackled a large issue that needed to be addressed. Suffering from manic episodes and dealing with the depressive low points can make you want to disappear from the world, as we see with Anne Hathaway’s character. The show does a good job in portraying how Anne Hathaway’s conditions impact her dating and work life. She is charismatic and charming but when the depression hits, she is self-destructive and strays away from her relationships. At the end Lexi learns it is both okay and freeing to be open about what you're diagnosed with to foster positive relationships. Lexi experienced stress followed by severe manic or depressive episodes from having to hide her diagnoses from her potential partner, tension in her relationships. For that reason, unhealthy relationships can destabilize a person with bipolar disorder.
First of all, let’s normalize being brown and going to therapy. I watched this show because I was excited to finally see brown representation in mainstream media. Then, I continued to watch it because Devi, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishna, went to therapy to process the grief she continued to experience after losing her father. A show that finally depicts a positive portrayal of mental health in South Asian communities while straying away from the “I have it all together” narrative.
There are certain biases surrounding mental health portrayed in shows or movies that can influence people’s experiences, and changing the narrative around it can create a positive influence. I’m elated that representation of mental health in our favourite TV shows is now becoming increasingly common and accessible to the younger generation.
I wish I had some exposure to shows like this when I was younger, as I do now—I am sure that finally seeing more realistic depictions of mental illnesses are breaking the stigma and affecting viewers now more than ever.
If you haven’t already, this is your sign to check out these shows now.
About the author: Navneet holds a bachelor’s degree focused in Health Science - Population and Quantitative Studies from Simon Fraser University, cultivating a passion for health promotion, policy and social justice. She has recently found a passion in writing about pop-culture, mental health and living in a South Asian diaspora. Her passion for feminism, diversity and progress lights a fire beneath everything she does. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, travelling and baking.
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