Every May, we acknowledge Mental Health Awareness Month, which gives us space to discuss and prioritize our mental health and mental illness. So, how does popular entertainment figure into this discussion?
It’s no secret that representation matters. (If you want a by-the-numbers look, check out our in-depth coverage of mental illness representation in film — the numbers hold pretty true for TV, too.) Without a doubt, seeing accurate, nuanced depictions of mental illness and disorders on screen not only helps folks living with those illnesses and disorders feel seen and less alone, but such portrayals of real-life experiences can be a way to educate others, build support systems, and dispel harmful misinformation.
With this in mind, we’re taking a look at some of the TV shows that, in the last few years, have brought great mental illness representation to the small screen. This isn’t an exhaustive list, by any means, and these shows also don’t get it right 100 percent of the time. Still, we’re happy to see everything from Moon Knight to BoJack Horseman helping to move the dial.
Editor’s Note: This article contains mentions of various mental illnesses and mental health disorders as well as discussions of how some of these illnesses and disorders are portrayed, both accurately and poorly, in media. Additionally, while the selected shows depict mental illness and mental health disorders accurately for the most part, it’s important to note that these depictions may not resonate for some readers as everyone’s experience with mental illness and mental health disorders is nuanced and specific.
Shows That Get Their Depictions of Mental Illness (Mostly) Right
In the last decade or so, a few standout stories have made great strides by centering lived experiences; depicting characters who seek treatment and support; and eschewing stigma — or, at least, having the main character navigate it authentically. Another common thread? There’s no cure-all answer.
Moon Knight (2022)
The latest Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) show to hit Disney+ is Moon Knight. Starring Oscar Isaac, the series is based on a lesser-known comic book character — and centers a protagonist with a less-discussed mental disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Formerly known as the arguably more stigmatizing multiple personality disorder, DID has certainly been represented in TV and film, but not very well, for the most part.
A person with DID has two or more distinct personalities. In Moon Knight‘s pilot, Steven Grant (Isaac) learns of his other personality, Marc Spector (also Isaac). In short, DID is a response to trauma; often a child may protect themselves by dissociating — that is, disconnecting their mind from their body. In a sense, Steven/Marc brain split into two distinct personalities as a trauma response.
While Moon Knight‘s depiction of DID isn’t perfect, it does accurately depict a few common experiences shared by folks with DID. For starters, there’s the distinct personalities, but then there’s also the Steven’s awareness of Marc and vice versa (the level of awareness generally varies from person to person) and their ability to communicate with each other. Sometimes, a person with DID will form a personality around a pop culture inspiration, which is another element the MCU show touches on.
All in all, the superhero genre, and TV and film’s need for dramatic tension, don’t always gel perfectly with representations of mental illness and disorders, but we appreciate the gentler, more authentic look portrayed here.
The L Word: Generation Q (2019–)
Okay, it’s no secret that the original L Word didn’t have the best depictions of therapy. Often, the couples therapy sessions that Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman) attended were cringey at best and flat-out “wait, how is this okay?” at worst. But, in the sequel series, the former couple’s daughter, Angie (Jordan Hull) proves that she has a bit more emotional intelligence than her moms.
In the second season of The L Word: Generation Q, Angie is on a mission to learn more about her donor. At first, her moms are adamant that she needs to wait until she’s 18 — that’s something they promised the donor, too — but when Angie takes a 23andMe-type test and discovers the identity of her half-sister, things take another rough turn. As if deciding whether or not to meet her donor wasn’t hard enough, Angie grapples with the fact that he has a terminal illness. She may not ever meet him. Or she could save him by donating one of her kidneys.
Obviously, this causes a lot of anxiety; Angie experiences panic attacks and depressive episodes, but she also has the wherewithal to ask for what she needs: therapy. We don’t often see characters, let alone teens, advocating for themselves like this or being supported by their family.
This Is Us (2016–22)
While many viewers have written off This Is Us as a bit too melodramatic or saccharine, the generation-spanning network hit does do right by Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown) when it comes to his mental health. As the most straight-laced, responsible and empathic sibling, Randall shouldered a lot growing up. On top of that, he grew up surrounded by white family members and, for most of his life, didn’t know anything about his birth parents.
After a break-in shakes Randall and his family, he can’t seem to regain his composure. On top of that, he discovers some new information about his late biological father and mother. And he’s getting deep into his political career; adopting a third teenage kid; and navigating COVID-19, an ailing mom (Mandy Moore) and (unfortunately) holding his white siblings’ hands through the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Randall has always prided himself on being self-sufficient. Even when his anxiety is high, he handles it. He believes he has to be strong for everyone else. Eventually his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), helps him see that seeking support isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. Once he’s in the therapist’s office, Randall still has misgivings — he’s a smart, self-aware guy, after all. In the end, he discovers not only the value of therapy, but of finding a Black therapist with whom he has a kind of shorthand.
Despite its prevalence, there aren’t many onscreen depictions of postpartum depression (PPD). However, Black-ish, the ABC comedy, gave us an incredibly powerful look into it, through the eyes of Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross). Initially, the episode, “Mother Nature,” aired on World Mental Health Day — an added means of raising awareness.
In the episode, Rainbow is overwhelmed by what she experiences after giving birth to DeVante. Even her family isn’t sure how to support her while she’s navigating PPD. Corey Nickerson, a writer and executive producer on the show, drew from her own experiences with PPD to craft the episode. Once the topic was brought up in the writers’ room, a number of people contributed their own lived experiences to the conversation, too.
Clearly, PPD isn’t discussed enough — or openly. In the episode, Ross digs deep, giving an emotional, strained performance that we won’t soon forget. “We have this great character, a strong, great mom, a successful doctor,” Nickerson told Variety. “Why don’t we try to show women that it’s OK to be dealing with something like this and still be good moms?”
Steven Universe (2013–19) & Steven Universe Future (2019–20)
Created by Rebecca Sugar for Cartoon Network, Steven Universe tells the coming-of-age story of the titular boy (Zach Callison). Although Steven’s dad is a car wash-owning rock musician, his mom, Rose Quartz, was a Gem — a magical, humanoid alien from outer space.
Years ago, Rose led her team of rebel Crystal Gems in a war against their alien Homeworld, all in an effort to protect Earth. Now, Steven has inherited her powers, life-force, drive to protect Earth — and, as it turns out, Rose’s not-so-sterling legacy.
Steven Universe Future, the sequel series, makes even more revolutionary strides in terms of representing mental illness. Steven has saved the world(s) and is trying to find his place in everything. “It’s [his body and abilities that he inherited from Rose] making him whatever he needs to be to get out of a life-threatening situation,” Sugar explained in an interview about Future. “The problem is, he’s not in a life-threatening situation [anymore], but his body has learned to react that way.” Steven pushes aside his trauma and continues putting others first. Eventually, he receives a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis.
BoJack Horseman (2014–20)
BoJack (Will Arnett), an anthropomorphic horse, is a washed-up TV star. Back in the ’90s, he played the dad on a very Full House-esque sitcom. These days, he’s self-loathing and always has something harsh to say. But, at his core, BoJack has depression as well as substance-use disorder. He just isn’t managing it well — or at all.
The show does a great job of making sure BoJack is held accountable for his toxic and harmful behavior. Yes, he’s mentally ill, but his depression and substance-use disorder aren’t excuses for hurting others. They are, however, reasons for some of his behavior. In not managing his mental illness, BoJack further harms himself and his friends and colleagues.
And, as Adam Feely points out on Impact, “In other portrayals of mental health in entertainment, the character’s mental illness is show to be caused by an isolated event. This is what makes BoJack Horseman so authentic” — the characters’ mental illness can’t be neatly traced back to one traumatic moment. In the end, BoJack isn’t suddenly “cured,” but he is on a path full of growth and healing.
Lady Dynamite (2016–17)
Loosely based on comedian (and creator/star) Maria Bamford’s experience being hospitalized for bipolar disorder, Lady Dynamite doesn’t treat the main character’s mental illness as an obstacle or as an excuse for surreal or comic moments.
Writing for Slate, Evelyn Anne Clauson argues that the show builds Bamford’s bipolar disorder “into the very fabric of its world… It’s the rare comedy that shows us that the reality of mental illness is that darkness can coexist with creativity and fun and hope.”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015–19)
Although at first this show seems like it will be all over-the-top musical numbers and a lot of the main character Rebecca (creator Rachel Bloom) harping on her ex, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend actually depicts a woman who is triggered by intimacy and relationships and who must navigate depression, anxiety, OCD, fixation and borderline personality disorder.
Throughout the show, Rebecca is unwilling to really open up to her therapist — a source of frustration for the viewer, which, in a way, helps underscore how important seeking treatment really is for folks with mental illness. Writing for Self, Claire Gillespie notes that “At the crux of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s success is its understanding that mental illness doesn’t end with a diagnosis.”
One Day at a Time (2017–20)
With three strong seasons on Netflix, this heartfelt reboot of the classic Norman Lear sitcom centers on the Cuban-American Alvarez family. Without sacrificing a modern perspective — and the desire to deal with topics other sitcoms would balk at — One Day at a Time still holds onto that filmed-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience feel. Apart from being a great comedy, this reboot stands out because of the way it holds space for those who may not have seen their own lives and concerns reflected in the sitcoms of yesteryear.
When it comes to mental health disorders and mental illness, One Day at a Time‘s main character, Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), lives with post-traumatic stress, which stems from her time as a United States Army Nurse Corps veteran. The show confronts the stigma surrounding mental illness and disorders head-on: Penelope grapples with sharing her diagnosis, attending a support group, asking for help, and taking medication — all of which makes this honest portrayal incredibly important.
You’re the Worst (2014–19)
In the second season of FXX’s edgy dramedy You’re the Worst, one of the show’s main characters, Gretchen (Aya Cash), spends a day drinking and essentially running away from a depressive episode. Of course, she can’t outrun it. Moreover, she realizes she can’t hide her diagnosed clinical depression from her partner.
Fearing she’ll alienate him, Gretchen downplays her clinical depression, but, as Vulture points out, “what’s especially striking about this scene is that it takes place in an episode that is, by and large, overly comic.” That is, the surrounding circumstances are funny, but the character’s mental health is never the punchline.
Sex Education (2019–)
Although Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Sterling) isn’t Sex Education‘s protagonist, he is one of the many ensemble members who really shines as the series goes on. But, since the start, he’s also been one of the characters who’s confronting his mental health concerns head on. Jackson is class president, gets top marks and is training to be a professional swimmer. That’s a lot of pressure to shoulder; one of his moms, Sofia (Ted Lasso‘s Hannah Waddingham), certainly doesn’t help.
For Jackson’s entire life, Sofia has been committed to his swimming ambitions — maybe more so than Jackson. In fact, he slowly comes to the realization that he’s pursuing athletics more for her than himself. All of that pressure and anxiety is just too much for him. In one scene, Jackson talks pretty openly about taking medication and managing his anxiety, and it’s powerful to see him advocate for himself, especially when it means confronting his mom.