A couple decades ago, if you had asked anyone if American television could contribute to positive social change, they most likely would have scoffed at you. Television could perhaps spark meaningful conversations, as we’ve seen through the years with the highly-praised finale of M*A*S*H, the hot-button issues that inspired All in the Family, and the ground-breaking sitcom Will & Grace. Today, we may be in the midst of television’s next great assist in societal change: the attitudes and perceptions most Americans have towards those living with mental illnesses and disorders.
Not that there isn’t a long way yet to go for the LGBT community or any other underrepresented minority, but it seems to me that television can really aid in ending the stigma against those struggling with various mental health issues, and is now doing just that. I can count off the top of my head a dozen currently airing shows, of mixed genres, highlighting characters with mental disorders in prominent, and in many cases, leading roles. From hard-hitting cable dramas (Homeland), to quirky comedies (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Lady Dynamite), to network shows with mass appeal (The Good Doctor, Mom), and to nerdier fair (Marvel’s Jessica Jones), all these shows put some sort of mental illness in the spotlight. And those with mental illnesses themselves are saying that these depictions are among the most honest and accurate they have ever seen.
It hasn’t always been that way. For most of television history, people with mental illnesses were sidelined and diminished to the parts of antagonists or victims. Before the 70’s, mental illness was never even stated outright in characters on TV, especially not recurring ones, and there was barely an acknowledgment of real mental illness even existing. When psychiatrists began popping up as main or recurring characters, the mentally ill were often played for laughs (Newhart, I Dream of Jeannie, later with Frasier in Cheers, then his own show), or as pieces of the plot for the hero psychiatrists to fix (MASH, short-lived The Psychiatrist, Matt Lincoln). But something began to change around the turn of the century on television. Real three dimensional characters with mental illnesses began popping up on television screens front and center, and played straight, or at least with deliberateness and compassion. There’s no way to determine definitively, but it probably had at least something to do with America being introduced to a certain Prozac-popping mob boss in 1999.
It’s no secret that The Sopranos is arguably one of the most influential television shows of all time; it ushered us into this Golden Age of television where complex, morally ambiguous characters played by A-List movie stars abound. But think what else showing a big tough guy fainting from panic attacks did for the television landscape. Afterwards came The United States of Tara, about a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). We saw the detective with a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder in Monk. Hurley, one of the most beloved characters of hit series Lost, suffered from schizophrenia and spent time in a mental ward.
We’ve seen a prime example of how television can really move hearts and minds with 1998’s Will & Grace. Then Vice President Joe Biden told The Washington Times that he believed the show, about a gay man and his female best friend, “probably did more to educate the American public” on gay issues than anything else ever had, voicing his support for gay marriage in the same article. Slowly perception on gay civil liberties (particularly marriage equality) began to change in favor of not just tolerance, but acceptance. As peak television continues to rise, the opportunity to cover more little-discussed topics, like mental illness and disorders, rises with it.
More and more we began seeing characters pop up in shows, or even anchoring shows, who struggled with addiction, anxiety, and personality disorders. In 2011 we met Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer living with bipolar disorder, in Showtime’s Homeland. But, slightly different from The Sopranos, Carrie’s disorder was not a hook to the original conceit of the show, as Tony’s depression was to his. Bipolar disorder is just another detail of her character. It comes and goes. It complicates things for her (and certainly ups the drama at convenient times) but it subsides and she just… lives with it. For this reason, many people with bipolar disorder have praised this depiction of their affliction. Shameless, a dramedy series on the same network, depicts Ian Gallagher with the same diagnosis as Carrie Mathison, only he’s not in the CIA; he’s just a regular young man trying to grow up and adjust to it. Over the course of the seasons, we see Ian suffer through manic episodes, crippling depression, and even mental ward admittance. But we still see he is able to maintain healthy relationships and jobs, and pursue what he wants to do… albeit with some hurdles, but who among us, disorder or not, does not have hurdles?
Carrie’s and Ian’s life with bipolar disorder is important for the same reasons Will Truman being open about his sexuality in his show was important. The more America sees these characters as just people, the more tolerant and understanding people will be of bipolar disorder, hopefully dealing a debilitating blow to the stigma. And the same goes for Edgar Quintano’s PTSD and Gretchen Cutler’s depression in You’re the Worst. For Randall Pearson’s anxiety in This Is Us. For Rachel Bloom’s borderline personality disorder in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. For Shaun Murphy’s and Sam Gardner’s developmental disorder, autism, in The Good Doctor and Atypical, respectively. The list goes on. There is no denying that we are in a veritable renaissance for characters living with mental disorders, and a lot of it is approved by the mental health community and the people struggling in real life. And the icing on top, most of the shows are critically acclaimed as well. We didn’t see this many gay-centric shows pop up so quickly after Will & Grace, though there are certainly more LGBT characters on television today than ever before, by a great deal.
But we still have a ways to go. For all the progress we’ve made, there are still shows that use disorders as a story crutch and not a character element. Think of procedural shows, like CSI or Criminal Minds, where mental illness is often shorthand for why a criminal is dangerous or violent. It perpetuates the stereotype that all who suffer from mental illness are prone to this type of behavior and extreme caution should be used around them at all times. Even some of the shows I mentioned above further the false ideas that all mental illnesses are severe, ever-present, and essentially unmanageable. Have we ever seen a character who has gotten their affliction under control and kept it there for a long duration of a series? This happens in real life all the time; in fact, most people with mental illnesses DO figure out ways to live day to day without it being a big deal. But you wouldn’t know that from their depiction on television. It is also clear that certain disorders get represented more than others, namely depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. People with other diagnoses are still vastly underrepresented, and the general public is still wholly unaware of their struggles.
Also troubling is the incredible prominence of white female lead characters with mental disorders, even just in the shows I’ve mentioned in this article. If this trend really did kick off with Tony Soprano, then why aren’t there more leading roles for men suffering with mental illness? And where are all the people of color? Does this somehow suggest that, even subconsciously, TV creators and executives think mental illness is more palatable to the American viewer in the form of pretty white women? And if that’s the case, what can we do to signal to them that we are ready for something different?
We won’t know the true effect any of these shows will have on our society’s attitude towards the mental health community until we are years out, I’m afraid. There is no real measure for how much more compassionate and accepting we become, and of course no real way to link it to our television landscape. With Will & Grace we saw actual change in national policy to reflect our shifting values. With those suffering mental health issues, it would seem to me that the progress we make would have to be determined on a much more personal level: how they feel treated day to day. But undoubtedly they deserve respect and love and equal treatment under any circumstances, and until we hear that the stigma is all but diminished, we have to keep speaking up for them and letting their trials be known. Television is a fantastic medium for that – perhaps the greatest. We spend hours upon hours with these characters, through ups and downs, and through this prolonged exposure can really begin to put ourselves in other’s shoes and find empathy for them. Television can at once be entertaining and informative, while ever so slightly nudging us in the direction of the right side of history. This is the potential, and I believe, obligation, of all television creators.
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Paul Gulyas | Contributor