There was once a time when talking about mental health was considered taboo. The difficulties we faced were hidden from the world and certainly not accurately reflected in the characters we watched on our television screens. The mental health experiences of these characters were often sensationalized and/or stigmatized. Leaving most viewers feeling triggered by what they just watched.
Thankfully, with recent TV series such as Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, HBO’s Insecure and NBC’s This Is Us, it appears that things are starting to finally shift. In the past few seasons of television, we have watched as more complex characters are introduced to us. Flawed characters who highlight the internal struggles we sometimes face in real life. Nathan from Insecure or Devi from Never Have I Ever serve as more realistic depictions of characters dropping the “I have it all together” mask. These characters talking about their mental health have allowed a conversation to be had about the importance of mental health in our communities. Seeing scenes of therapists talking to clients, and having breakdowns have allowed us, the viewers, the strength to look within ourselves and make some necessary changes. And yes, while these shows provide us entertainment, they are also providing us a chance to reflect. We look up to these characters. Finally seeing more realistic depictions are breaking the stigma and affecting viewers now more than ever.
When Lindsey, a 30-year-old from New York City, first came across Broad City, she identified with the struggles of Ilana. Ilana’s character openly talked about needing to change her dosage for her prescribed medication. Lindsey felt like she was watching a happier version of who she could be. From that, she decided to reunite with her psychiatrist and adjust her own medication. Lindsey isn’t alone. More viewers are sharing how TV has inspired them to get help. Molly’s character on Insecure inspired Geraldine, 26, to get back into therapy. She saw herself in Molly and wanted to become the best possible version of herself. Shows like This Is Us, Grey’s Anatomy, BoJack Horseman and Sex Education are creating space for others to feel seen and ask for help. We’re not the only ones noticing the shift either.
These characters talking about their mental health have allowed a conversation to be had about the importance of mental health in our communities.
Tim Rogers, MA, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Rogers Family Therapy, has noticed a connection between his clients and the portrayal of mental health on their screens too. He tells StyleCaster, “From television shows like The Sopranos, In Treatment and films like A Star Is Born and back to the small screen with 13 Reasons Why, my clients are incredibly savvy, when it comes to seeing a personal link between how mental illness is portrayed in the media and what they themselves experience in their personal lives on a day to day or even an hour to hour basis. I do think the positive portrayal of mental health like in these series helped my clients as well.”
However, for every positive portrayal put out in our world, there are still a number of alarmingly harmful ones. Tim continues, “If anything, I am seeing a major trend in the increase of how important it is for both clients I see and colleagues to say something about how TV shows and films can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and feed stigmas which can actually contribute (not be the source of) significantly to people getting the help they really need!“ While we praise the positive portrayals, we should also have more conversations around the effects of the negative portrayals as well.
Finally seeing more realistic depictions are breaking the stigma and affecting viewers now more than ever.
For example, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, a horror film about a man with 24 different personalities who kidnaps and murders teenagers, is widely criticized and petitioned for its depiction of Dissociative Identity Disorder, a mental disorder where an individual can have two or more distinct identities. Many feel the depiction is a harmful misrepresentation of what having the disorder is actually like. Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, a series about a high school student who leaves behind a box of cassette tapes after committing suicide, has also come under fire numerous times for the depiction of suicide, mental health, and more. These portrayals are just as impactful, if not more, than the limited positive ones we have seen.
Whether positive or negative, the showcase of mental health in television and film is slowly increasing. However, quite frankly, there’s still not enough of them. According to a 2019 report from the University of Southern California, 1.7 percent of 4,598 characters in film and 7 percent of 1,220 characters in TV experience a mental health condition. Of these characters, eight highlight the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community, and no characters of the LGBTQ+ community were highlighted in film. Not one. The depiction of mental health, particularly for underrepresented communities are virtually missing from our television series and films. Hence why, the limited portrayals we do get are so vastly important.
Though it may be slow, progress is still being made. My hope is that as move into a new season of television shows and films, creators are including more of these storylines. Almost 19 percent of the U.S. population experience mental health conditions, according to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. I believe that number would be significantly higher if more communities of color were surveyed. If we saw more depictions of mental health, we could change the stigma around it and change more lives. We could help people feel less alone and more seen. Hollywood, there’s no better time than now to do better.