Editor’s Note: The following post contains spoilers for the TV shows mentioned.
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 at all.
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 Mighty community, we analyzed eight shows to see how they portrayed anxiety and depression — and included where you can watch them!
1. “Rick and Morty”
“Rick and Morty” is a science-fiction adult cartoon that follows the interdimensional adventures of “mad” scientist Rick Sanchez (voiced by Justin Roiland) and his grandson Morty Smith (also voiced by Justin Roiland). Fans have praised the show’s accurate portrayal of depression, and have specifically related to Rick, who seems “frozen” by his depression, self-destructive tendencies and inability to help himself.
Of the show, Mighty community member Michaela W. said,
I really relate to Rick from “Rick and Morty.” He’s incredibly high-functioning, but depressed out of his mind in the episodes where they aren’t going on adventures. It’s a good depiction for me, because I still accomplish things and [am] productive even when I’m not doing well. He also deals with his depression through substance abuse and impulsivity, which is also relatable to me. It really shows the negative sides in an honest light.
Show co-creator Dan Harmon is no stranger to experiencing depression. In December when a Twitter user asked if he had any advice for people struggling with depression, he responded in a series of supportive Tweets. His main takeaway? Don’t go through it alone.
For One: Admit and accept that it’s happening. Awareness is everything. We put ourselves under so much pressure to feel good. It’s okay to feel bad. It might be something you’re good at! Communicate it. DO NOT KEEP IT SECRET. Own it. Like a hat or jacket. Your feelings are real.
Related: What I Wish for as a Person With Anxiety
2. “This Is Us”
“This Is Us” is an emotional drama that follows the Pearson family, showing how their lives intersect in surprising ways. The show has received critical acclaim specifically for the way it handled anxiety — with Sterling K. Brown winning the Golden Globe for best actor this year.
The scene that most fans with anxiety relate most to comes from season one when Randall (Sterling K. Brown) 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. 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 symptom-wise, 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 we can’t always expect perfect responses like these from our loved ones, it is nice to see someone responding positively. 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.
3. “Parks and Recreation”
Though “Parks and Recreation” is primarily known for its funny characters and moments (Treat yo’ self, anyone?), some appreciated how it showed depression through the notoriously “happy” character, Chris Traeger. Of the show, Mighty community member Maria R said,
This might be a stretch, but… Chris Traeger on ‘Parks and Recreation.’ He’s known for being absurdly cheery (‘high-functioning’ depression) but has a story arc where it’s revealed a lot of his health nut hobbies are a distraction and he seeks out a therapist who he sees almost daily (which I sometimes wish I could do).
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, “What You Don’t See About ‘Happy’ People With Depression,” Thought Catalog contributor Kris Miller wrote,
When you’re the happy person, the smiley social butterfly, no one expects you to be hurting inside.
No one assumes there are things that go beyond the exterior. No one thinks there’s pain past the friendly outside… Depression sits in the background, like an uninvited guest. No one else can see it. But still, I know it’s there.
4. “BoJack Horseman”
“BoJack Horseman” is a show about BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett), a horse who also happens to be washed-up 90s TV star. In addition to its poignant satire of Hollywood and current events, the show also puts BoJack’s mental health struggles at the forefront, showing how they affect his relationships and personal success. The Netflix show has gained a cult following, largely due to its accurate portrayal of depression. Mighty community member Jared Gowen wrote of the show,
“BoJack Horseman” is a show about depression. It’s about struggling with feelings of emptiness and inadequacy, about trying and failing to find a lasting happiness through achievements or grand gestures or trappings of success. It’s a show about what depression can do to not just one person’s life, but the lives of everyone around them. It’s a show without quick fixes or easy answers, where happy endings don’t exist because life keeps going.
And though many fans love the show specifically because of its representation of depression, the show’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg never intended for it to be what the show was known for. “It was never our top priority to be the voice of depression,” he said in an interview with The Huffington Post. He went on to explain they were just trying to capture who the character was.
In addition to depression, we see BoJack struggle with addiction, have panic attacks and flashbacks to his emotionally abusive upbringing. And while the show covers a lot of relatable mental health ground, it’s worth noting it can hit too close to home for some viewers. This is something Mighty community member Ximena P. noted. “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.”
5. “American Horror Story: Cult”
“American Horror Story” (AHS) is an anthology series known for adapting popular horror tropes, with each season functioning as its own miniseries that fits into the larger AHS world. The latest season of the series, entitled “American Horror Story: Cult,” used anxiety as a major plot point, highlighting how “scary” it can be to live with a mental illness.
Throughout the season, we see Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) struggle with debilitating anxiety, panic attacks and trypophobia (fear of clusters of small holes or bumps). Interestingly, in an interview with Ellen Degeneres, Paulson revealed her own phobias and anxieties were written into the script, making her face her own fears while playing the role.
But perhaps the most important aspect of this season was that Ally’s fears and anxieties were validated. In the beginning of the season, Ally’s wife discounts her fearful and anxious reactions, but as the season goes on, we learn the anxiety-based “hallucinations” Ally experiences are actually happening, and have been orchestrated by cult leader Kai Anderson (Evan Peters). Ally’s anxieties becoming “real” is a poignant metaphor illustrating that mental health struggles are very real and not “just in your head.”
Though AHS tackled anxiety head on, the show was criticized for its triggering imagery that people with anxiety might be especially vulnerable to. Even before airing, some people reported experiencing panic attacks after seeing the ads for the season, which featured the tiny holes people with trypophobia can have a visceral reaction to. The season itself drew similar criticism. In her piece “5 Things to Know About the New Season of ‘American Horror Story’ if You Have Anxiety,” Mighty contributor Charity Kennedy Wixler wrote about why it was hard for her to watch.
This season’s focus is fear. And not the scary, haunted, killer coming after you fear, but the overanalyze, worry about everything, everyday kind of fear. This season is anxiety, and for those of us who deal with anxiety every day, watching this show may compact all those feelings we already experience on a daily basis.
6. “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”
“The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” a TV show based on the beloved children’s book by A.A. Milnes, follows the adventures of Pooh Bear and his friends — Eeyore, Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga and Roo. Over the years, Eeyore has come to symbolize depression for many. “I honestly think Eeyore from ‘Winnie the Pooh’ was a pretty awesome depiction of depression. I related a whole lot to it,” said Mighty community member Hayley L.
In fact, there is a fan-created theory that each character represents a different mental illness. But perhaps the most important part of the show is how Eeyore’s friends treat him in the midst of his depressed moods — setting a great example for young viewers. In her piece, “What Eeyore Taught Us About Being Sad,” blogger Lydia Wagner wrote,
Winnie the Pooh and the gang never once made fun of Eeyore for being sad. They never wrote him off as being crazy. In fact, they checked in on him. They invited him on every adventure even though they knew that he would probably say no or, if he did come, he would be a little grumpy. Eeyore had the best friends in the world! They understood that he was the way he was and that was nothing to be ashamed of. They took care of him even when it was inconvenient or difficult.
“House,” is a medical drama that follows the brilliant but cynical Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie), a character who is loosely based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes. Though House was never specifically diagnosed with depression, his friend and fellow doctor James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) struggles with clinical depression in season 3 and believes House is struggling with untreated depression.
Some fans believe House exhibits signs of depression throughout the show. Mighty community member Mary J. said, “The way House treats people around him, how he isolates and pushes people away is very typical of depression.” In addition, the character exhibits other habits that people with depression may relate to including self-medication with (and addiction to) Vicodin and self-sabotaging his own happiness.
Did we miss a show? Share your favorites the comments below.
Photos via “House” and “Rick and Morty” Facebook pages