Television and mental illness have a long and strained relationship. While TV is rife with mentally ill characters of all shapes and sizes, these characters are often unrealistic and occasionally deeply offensive. Mental illness is a difficult thing to portray accurately, and there are a few common ways in which TV shows tend to mess it up.
Some shows refuse to explicitly diagnose their characters, and use this as an excuse to cherry pick—or even invent—whichever symptoms best suit the needs of the plot. UnREAL, whose protagonist Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) at various times could be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, or antisocial personality disorder (otherwise known as sociopathy), is a prime example of this.
Other shows glamorize mental illness, treating it as the source of their characters’ talent and implicitly suggesting that seeking medical treatment for mental disorders makes people less “special.” Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) of Homeland exemplifies this problem. Carrie decides to stop taking medication for her bipolar disorder in order to regain her manic “super powers” as a CIA officer.
Another common way in which television misrepresents mental illness is by making it a brief, quickly resolved side plot. These plotlines frequently involve eating disorders or substance abuse problems and, inevitably, involve a character with no prior history of mental issues rapidly developing and then conquering a fleeting mental illness. Particularly egregious examples include Glee’s Marley Rose (Melissa Benoist), who develops bulimia at the mere suggestion of a mean cheerleader, and Full House’s D.J. Tanner (Candace Cameron Bure), who turns anorexic for a single episode and then never brings it up again.
The final and most common misstep TV makes is portraying individuals with mental illness as dangerous, irredeemable, and prone to violence. This is most common on detective and legal shows like Criminal Minds, where murderers are frequently psychotic, sociopathic, or schizophrenic. This stereotype, which encourages viewers to perceive the mentally ill as evil, is arguably the most harmful of all, especially since the severely mentally ill are far likelier to be victims of violence than perpetrators.
Despite the frequency of these misrepresentations, there are a few shows that get it right, depicting mental illness in sensitive and refreshingly nuanced ways. The self-destructive behavior of BoJack Horseman’s titular protagonist (Will Arnett) is likely to ring true for plenty of viewers who have struggled with depression. You’re the Worst features two mentally ill characters: Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash), whose severe depression is gradually revealed over the course of a season, and Edgar Quintero (Desmin Borges), a veteran whose PTSD is a constant and quietly devastating presence in the background of the show. Lady Dynamite, which stars comedian Maria Bamford as a fictionalized version of herself, uses a nonlinear narrative to simultaneously depict the causes and consequences of Maria’s nervous breakdown and hospitalization. And then there is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), whose mental health issues are not revealed entirely until the shocking season two finale. These four shows—a darkly satirical take on Hollywood, a cynical romance about self-absorbed millennials, a surreal sitcom/stand-up comedy blend in the style of Louie or Seinfeld, and a subversively feminist musical show—have very little in common, but the one thing they do share is their genre.
Although serious disorders like depression and PTSD might not seem like an obvious source of humor, in many ways comedy is actually an ideal medium for portraying mental illness. None of these shows shy away from the ugly realities of mental illness, but they also acknowledge that there’s a dark humor to be found in hitting rock bottom. When Gretchen Cutler’s depression finally reaches a tipping point, it causes her to furiously lash out in a scene that is simultaneously tragic (because of her obvious unhappiness) and hilarious (because of her biting takedowns of every one of her friends). And when Rebecca Bunch sinks into a depressive haze over her ex-boyfriend, Bloom expertly satirizes other shows’ romanticization of depression, singing about being in a “Sexy French Depression,” while filming Rebecca’s pajama-clad and decidedly unglamorous reality. As in real life, mental illness is neither a death sentence nor a personality quirk. It’s simply a fact of life—a fact which never precludes anyone from being smart, charming, well-rounded, and yes, even funny.