It's Time to Talk about the way mental health is shown on TV
PUBLISHED: 00:40 01 February 2018 | UPDATED: 15:05 01 February 2018
Featuring characters with mental health issues in dramas and soaps can have a positive impact on people recognising illness or seeking help. But TV can also get it badly wrong. On Time to Talk day, we open up the issue of mental health as seen on the small screen.
As someone who has battled against depression and social anxiety – and still do, sometimes – Time to Talk Day is an initiative I value and admire.
Today is all about being more open about mental health, from talking, to listening, to changing lives – I’m getting this from the website, by the way, but regardless, I get how relentless, uncomfortably and wildly difficult mental illness can be to understand. After all, how DO you go about understanding something you can’t see?
If someone has a broken leg it explains why they’re trotting about on crutches or in a wheelchair: you can see what’s wrong and it makes sense.
Depression? Another matter entirely. Let me paint you a picture: imagine someone from a good family, who has good things going on in their lives, who has friends, plays in goal for their school football team yet they despise their very existence. How do you understand that? This was me, 10 years ago.
And with that, let us seamlessly segue into a simple way that people start a conversation and thereby improve their knowledge about an issue which affects one in four of us yet which is surrounded by stigma and stereotypes – television, or to be precise, the way that the big issue of mental health is portrayed on the small screen.
Time to Talk Day seems an opportune moment to have that conversation. In the words of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben: “with greater power, comes great responsibility” - TV and film can do a lot of good when it comes to representation – not only with mental health – but it can potentially do bad as well. What is the right way to depict mental illness?
While I have my own experiences, I’m no expert - well, I did psychology at A-Level - but nevertheless, maybe I can get us talking…
Immediately, 13 Reasons Why jumps to mind : Jay Asher’s novel-turned-Netflix-sensation by Brian Yorkey, follows Clay Jensen (Dylan Minette) as he listens to cassette tapes explaining the reasons why his friend, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) took her life. It’s a series that’s been widely lauded and sparked controversy, but it got people talking.
Ultimately, it’s a good, very draining series that mercilessly punches you in the gut with a hammer fist of emotions, much owed to the stupendous lead performances – especially Langford. You have to wade through some pretty dark, adult subject matter before the graphic conclusion: it’s fair to say it lingers in the mind for some time afterwards.
But arguably, the show misses its mark: the decision to show Hannah’s suicide – with appropriate trigger warnings now in place from Netflix – is ultimately the right one (I think) although it made me feel uncomfortable and a little triggered myself. The scenes force an uncomfortable truth on the viewer.
The big issue with 13 Reasons Why though, is Hannah’s route from A to B – is her mindset fleshed out as well as it could have been? Is her vigorous planning a realistic portrayal of suicide? Does it, in fact, glamorise suicide to a degree?
Netflix recently announced a second season of 13 Reasons Why (13 More Reasons Why?) – so it obviously got people talking, but does that mean it’s a good portrayal of mental health, or do the flaws in it make it a bad one? In America, it reportedly led to an increase in suicide related searches online. Mental health organisations have expressed reservations. It’s perhaps a good conversation opener to build some meaningful dialogue and some big issues, rather than a good portrayal of mental health.
Returning in February, Homeland features a protagonist with bipolar disorder. Claire Danes’ performance as Carrie Mathison has won rave reviews and the show’s portrayal of bipolar disorder is highly regarded. With an accurate depiction of mental health delivered through a fantastic protagonist, Homeland is an exhilarating, thrilling show in its own right and has a lead character with a mental illness that is a part of her story – not her whole story – showing her to continue to work and function in a position of great authority.
Bojack Horseman, airing on Netflix, dabbles with the intricacies of depression in a brutally honest, ultimately brilliant way. Jessica Jones, the golden egg in the Marvel-Netflix nest, masterfully explores the aftermath of rape and control with post-traumatic stress disorder, winning superlative reviews in the process.
Scrubs, perhaps my favourite show of all time, now and forever, tackled Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) through Dr Casey (Michael J. Fox) in its typical, make you laugh, then make you cry manner. On the flip side, Eastenders felt fans’ wrath for jibes from Walford loud-mouth Sonia Fowler to her ex-husband’s new wife Stacey (“she’s more unstable than a three-legged chair!”)
Time to Change – the brilliant initiative behind Time to Talk Day – has a guide on its website which examines how to show mental health in drama or soaps. They talk about how to make it interesting without having to be dull or explosive. And that’s the truth: the middle ground, the realistic ground, is where you want to be. As an aspiring writer myself – I’ve got a veritable litter of screenplays – I understand there’s always going to be a sprinkling of fiction to build a story.
But there has to be a footing in reality - stereotypes are a no. The madman in a horror movie, the stereotypical crazy person - these sensationalised, scary portrayals aren’t helpful, but having a protagonist like Carrie, showing the extent of her illness, yet also showing her still being able to function, is. Stigma is a big thing, therefore the EastEnders scene started a literal debate online and proved there are plenty of people queueing up to fight Stacey’s corner.
A good portrayal of mental health is a true one. It doesn’t have to be entirely positive, but it should be well-informed and empathic. You don’t have to walk on eggshells but you do need to keep your foot firmly planted in reality. TV is influential and accurate representation is important – for anyone struggling with mental health issues, seeing a realistic portrayal of themselves can be absolutely invaluable.
* Find out more about Time to Talk Day at www.time-to-change.org.uk
* Need help with mental health issues? Visit www.mentalhealth.org.uk/your-mental-health/getting-help
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