For several decades after the birth of television, shows tended to portray mental health issues in a stigmatized and dismissive manner, relegating characters who have these issues to the periphery. Characters who had mental health issues were often villains, committing crimes on shows that dealt with law enforcement, courtrooms and solving cases. In recent years, television producers have taken large steps towards presenting mental health issues in a more realistic and nuanced light.
The Complex Gangster
Most people are familiar with the popular and engaging drama about modern day gangsters in New Jersey called The Sopranos. From 1999 to 2007, viewers were transfixed by mob boss Tony Soprano and his attempt to maintain a family life while engaging in organized crime. The scenes that showed Tony’s therapy sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi were among the most unique aspects of the show, allowing viewers into the mind of Tony in an unprecedented way.
This unique plot angle was unprecedented in television and showed a fairly accurate, if dramatized, portrayal of one-on-one therapy sessions. Tony suffered from debilitating panic attacks, which was the original reason he began seeing his therapist.
This show let viewers see the progress that can be made through therapy and helped break down walls between outdated perceptions of psychiatrists and the reality of how therapy can help anyone willing to put in the work. At the beginning of the series, the people in Tony’s world thought seeing a psychiatrist was a sign of weakness. By the end of the series, these same people evolved to understand the advantages of therapy.
Characters with mental health issues of one kind or another have been on TV since the beginning. It’s just that for many years, these characters were one-dimensional plot fillers that were relegated to elementary roles as “the crazy guy” or an insane criminal. As television shows add more main characters with common problems like depression or mild obsessive-compulsive disorder, viewers not only see what these problems really look like, the discussion of the characters can bring about positive change and self-recognition.
Dr. Paul Puri is a psychiatrist and consultant on television scripts for Hollywood, Health & Society, an organization that helps writers make sure they have their science and health facts straight. He thinks television portrayals of characters with mental health issues are improving. Lately, more shows are incorporating central characters, as opposed to throwaway supporting roles, who have mental health problems.
A Good Start
In 2015, after decades of relegating characters with psychiatric issues to the sidelines, shows are changing the narrative. On Empire, Trai Byers plays a character with bipolar disorder. Byers has been talking with his uncle to gain firsthand experience. “He’s happy that we’re using this platform to showcase the fact that there are people who suffer with the disorder, and it’s something that we as Americans sweep under the rug. Just to be seen and heard is a great thing.”
Other shows that have highlighted mental health issues in a fact-based positive light in 2015 include FX’s You’re the Worst, CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Netflix’s BoJack Horseman and USA Network’s Mr. Robot.
For too many years, television has forgone the opportunity to present mental health issues as they exist in real life. It seems that as the stigma fades in real life, television is beginning to follow suit.