7 Popular TV Shows That Get Mental Health Right
Accurate depictions of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and other mental health conditions have finally hit the small screen.
TV these days gets lots of things right. But even the best comedies and dramas don't always do an accurate job tackling mental health issues. One recent example: last spring's 13 Reasons Why, which came under fire for the way it addressed teen depression and suicide.
Incorrect and irresponsible portrayals of characters with mental illness are no surprise to Nancy Mramor PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in media and pop culture, “While programs may have accuracies, they are usually produced to make them interesting,” she explains. “And mental health disorders are not always interesting or appealing.”
But recently, there's been an uptick in shows putting mental health in the spotlight, depicting main characters with disorders such as bipolar disorder, autism, and OCD. No show is perfect, and no condition will feel 100 percent accurate, since every person’s experience with a metal health condition is different. Mramor also says that onscreen symptoms and conditions are often played up as extreme cases, simply for audience understanding or to further the story.
That said, several shows have done a responsible, sensitive job capturing what it's like to live with mental illness or be part of a family or friend group in which a loved one is afflicted with one. Here are seven mental health–savvy shows you can stream now.
The Good Doctor (ABC)
This newest medical drama this season follows Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon with autism and “savant syndrome,” meaning he’s unusually talented as a medical professional. While the depiction is not typical of everyone with autism, says Mramor, the show does capture a nuanced, individual take on the condition as well as certain characteristic symptoms, like social awkwardness and fidgeting with hands. “It is entertaining in the way that it shows an upside of autism, when there is one, in the savant who is medically gifted,” Mramor says.
In Girls, Hannah develops OCD due to the stress of writing her book, and Mramor confirms that the condition can be exacerbated under stress. At the same time, "many cases are not so severe, and self-harm is likely to take place indirectly during an inability to stop a compulsive behavior that interferes with life,” she says, referencing Hannah’s Q-tip incident in the series. According to Mramor, Lena Dunham’s OCD portrayal gets a nod for the more devastating realism.
Jessica Jones (Netflix)
Condition: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Jessica Jones accurately depicts some key elements of trauma’s aftermath—in this case, rape and control. “This show outlines the struggles of victims of violence, as they attempt to overcome the impact of trauma on their psyche,” says Ken Yeager, PhD, psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program. Jessica (played by Krysten Ritter) avoids reminders of her trauma, struggles with intimacy and deals with intrusive thoughts. “She attempts to control situations in a world that has changed, become unfamiliar, in which she doesn’t know what is real or who to trust,” he explains. “This is in light of a person who has super powers but is still vulnerable to the impacts of trauma.”
This Is Us (NBC)
At the end of the show's first season, NBC’s hit drama This Is Us began closing in on Randall’s perfectionist nature and the mounting anxiety it creates. “As a perfectionist, it is true that when you can’t control absolutely everything, it causes anxiety,” Mramor says. Randall’s panic attack during Kevin’s play “is one of the more intense symptoms a person with anxiety can have,” she adds, but it’s effective in showing the overwhelming nature of anxiety.
Randall (played by Sterling K. Brown) appears to be having similar stress in season two. “He is afraid to adopt a child because he may not be able to parent a problem child ‘exactly right,’” says Mramor. His wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) "succeeds in calming him down, which might require more coaxing than could be shared in one episode.” Look for this season to highlight the condition as the show progresses.
Condition: Bipolar disorder/Alcoholism
Shameless depicts bipolar disorder primarily through character Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monaghan). Mramor says his is “an extreme case” of the condition, with suicide attempts, hospitalizations, and major highs and lows. “The conflict of wanting to get better, yet not wanting to be drugged into not feeling like yourself, is a common conflict with bipolar and other patients, and quite accurate,” she says.
However, Mramor says the most striking mental health component Showtime’s hit series has to do with addiction: the alcoholism of Frank, played by William H. Macy. “It shows how children end up caring for themselves, and how alcoholism is not always a low income, blue-collar disease,” she explains. “It can affect anyone.”
Condition: Bipolar disorder
Homeland’s Carrie Mathison struggles with bipolar disorder throughout the show’s run, and the episodic way in which the condition is portrayed is true to the condition’s manifestation in real life. Carrie has the bipolar disorder's mood swings, risk-taking behaviors, and impulsivity. It might be an extreme depiction, but “Claire Danes is spot-on” in depicting the disorder, says Mramor. Yeager says the series’ most accurate representation of the condition is the split between Carrie’s mood and behavior “on medication and off medication, slipping ever-closer to psychosis.”
You’re the Worst
Condition: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
The series focuses on multiple conditions, including clinical depression, but Yeager says Edgar’s PTSD struggle is perhaps the most realistic depiction. “This show depicts Edgar in various states of dealing with his PTSD, from being homeless to attempting to seek care within the tangles of red tape and the bureaucracy of the Veteran Administration office,” he explains. “This accurately shows the overwhelming challenges associated with getting help for those with PTSD.” Yeager believes that the most honest episode is “Twenty Two,” which highlights some of the major difficulties of living with PTSD. “The episode title refers to the number of combat veterans ending their lives by suicide each day,” Yeager explains.