TV depression looks fabulous. I’d love to have that kind of depression. And it’s not just TV depression; any mental illness on-screen looks rather thrilling. Either it’s dark and dramatic — unlike day-to-day depression, which is at best super dull — or it’s quirky and fleeting, like a flash sale of Zooey Deschanel’s wardrobe.
I know there are shows out there that “get mental illness right,” and I enjoy most of them. But for me, the show that most accurately portrays mental illness(es) is “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” The first time I ever saw Rachel Bloom’s character Rebecca sing about “Sexy French Depression” I nearly fell out of bed. It tapped into a very silly yet very real fantasy I have about having sexy, dangerous television depression. I thought I was the only one who yearned for that seductive on-screen sadness, but here was Rebecca Bunch, staggering around Paris in a black dress, sunglasses, and cigarette in hand. The way depression was supposed to be. It was specific and hilarious and even though it was a dream sequence, it was super real.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is the exception, but I’m going to talk about the rules.
I grew up in a land before time (the nineties), a time when mental illness wasn’t shown on TV at all. It was the golden age of teenage angst (“Dawson’s Creek,” “My So-Called Life,” “Daria”) but diagnosed mental illness was never part of the story line. Back then, the big three were sex, alcohol and drugs. Shows loved to weave a “dangers of drugs” narrative into special episodes. It’s a wonder any of us managed to do recreational drugs after the infamous “Saved by the Bell” episode where Jessie gets addicted to “caffeine pills,” although us cool kids knew it was speed (I did not know it was speed until just now). If you haven’t seen the episode, all you need to know is that Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley) gets hooked on caffeine pills and ends up having a full meltdown in front of heartthrob Zach Morris (half-Asian icon Mark-Paul Gosselaar) while screaming, “I’m so excited!” It’s a milestone in nineties cinematic history, so I suggest you look it up.
Teenage programming back then was so focused on sex, alcohol and drug use that the shows often failed to include the psychology and motivations behind the sex, alcohol and drug use. These topics were typically dealt with on a case-by-case basis rather than doing a deep dive into why someone would choose to abuse drugs or alcohol. And pre-teen Amanda did not give a heck! All I cared about was Pacey Witter and Joey Potter growing old together and adopting me as their fast-talking, pseudointellectual daughter, Amanda Witter-Potter.
During my formative years, the only time I saw mental illness represented was on the big screen — Hollywood, baby! I grew up watching movies in which beautiful, emaciated women went “full psycho” while their male counterparts went “crazy genius.” If a woman was mentally ill she was an emotional wreck, throwing fits and doing that hot crying. The men didn’t have a mental illness so much as a “debonair madness,” which only added to their appeal. “He’s so charismatic yet so misunderstood!” Ah, to be a man.
Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted.” Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” Helena Bonham Carter in most of her films. Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Brad Pitt in “Fight Club.” Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind.” I remember watching these movies and thinking how cool it was to look and feel like shit. I spent hours trawling through Topshop to find skinny grey jeans and a distressed yellow t-shirt like the ones Angelina Jolie wore as Lisa, an outfit truly ahead of its time. It was 1999 and anything that wasn’t a bandana top and a baggy pant (which yes, I did own) was hard to come by. I may not have found the clothes but I did have a new mindset — movie mental: good and risqué. Real mental: bad and actually risky.
Things have changed since then — not so much in movies, but in TV. We’re seeing more mental illness on-screen than ever before. Is that a good thing? Yes! And no! Broadly speaking, anytime we talk about mental health it is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean spouting off any old shit (with the exception of this book). We still have to be responsible. Script words matter. As mentioned, there are a few shows today that “get” mental illness, but there are a whole bunch that don’t. To that end, here are a few patterns I’ve noticed in the portrayal of mental illness on TV.
Rarely do we hear an actual diagnosis in TV shows. We mostly have to guess that a character has either depression or anxiety, because that’s pretty much all they show. Depression and anxiety seem to be the go-to mental illnesses for TV, as they’re the easiest to manage and write. Unlike real life, TV characters can easily dip into and out of depression and anxiety. It’s a convenient device for when a character gets a little dull, because you know what would spice up this scene? A panic attack. You know what would give this character “added depth”? A depressive episode. It’s a convenient spanner to throw in, an easy way to up the stakes, and even easier to move on from. It’s not like schizophrenia or bipolar — those ones you have to maintain the who-o-o-ole time, which can get so-o-o-o tedious. But there are some shows that buck that trend. Remember how Lena Dunham’s character in “Girls” suddenly “got” OCD for like two episodes and then it was never mentioned again? That was fun. What I wouldn’t give to have bipolar for just one season!
Characters with mental illness are edgy as hell — like, what is their deal? They’re often mysterious, or troubled, or mysteriously troubling. There are two types of edgy TV character: (1) has a dark aura about them and dresses as such, and (2) is kooky and “unique” in a Willy Wonka-esque way. There’s no such thing as a humdrum mentally ill character; no one wants to see someone sleep till noon, get up, eat tuna from a can, and go back to sleep. But if anyone does want to see that on screen I can send you my avails. No one will believe mental illness is manageable and/or widespread if you only show two types of attitudes, looks, or illnesses. Also, this tired “edginess” just makes you look super corny.
Some shows pick and choose when and for how long they want to show depression and anxiety. But for the shows that do commit to a character having a mental illness, that kinda becomes their “thing.” They don’t need much more depth if they have some sort of disorder. We talk about how your mental illness doesn’t define who you are, but on TV you are your mental illness. People will ask, “Who’s that actor on that show? Y’know, the one who plays the schizo?” or “She’s on that teen show, the suicide one,” and of course, “She’s the one who goes insane.” I know, aside from a quick internet search, this may be the fastest way to find out an actor’s name, but it just goes to show how one-dimensional some of these characters can be.
The Cause of All Bad Things
Characters make bad choices all the time; it’s what creates great television. Whenever someone takes a wrong turn, it drives the plot forward and further immerses us in the story. But it’s not just TV. It’s human nature to fuck up, and that’s sometimes what makes life kind of thrilling too. Whether you have a mental illness or not, we all make bad decisions. Most of my bad decisions have come from me being a terrible person and have nothing to do with my bipolar. However, in TV land, characters are almost always driven to the brink by their mental illness. Whether it’s murder, burning down a building, or causing a scene at a society party, it’s the “crazy” that’s to blame. If it weren’t for that pesky personality disorder, then “we’d still be at the gala and Kristen would still be alive.” I’m not saying characters with a mental illness should be portrayed as angels—far from it! But if they’re shitbags, make them shitbags for the right reasons—because they’re shitbags.
There’s no scarier villain than medication! When has anyone ever taken medication regularly on TV with minimal drama? Meds are a perfect plot device because they are built to cause trouble. If you don’t take them? Trouble. If you take too many? Trouble. If they’re the wrong type of meds? Trouble. There are so many exciting combinations and outcomes of how meds can mess you up, but there’s nothing titillating about someone routinely taking their medication and “doing fine.” A lot of the problematic opinions I had about meds were formed by how they were depicted on TV. It seemed like all they ever did was cause mayhem and heartbreak for the people who needed them.
I’m always surprised by how dramatic mental illness is on-screen. I’ve never known depression to be so jam-packed, but on TV it seems so exhausting. In my TV show, there’d be about three nap breaks before Act Two. How do these characters have the energy to be so demonstrably depressed all the time? I mean, sure, I’m depressed all the time, but I can’t be visibly tortured and crying every hour. I still have to, like, go to the bank! A realistic depressed character is a repressed one. It’s not all unexpected outbursts; it’s mostly just “trying to get by” and “trying to get out of stuff.” I under- stand TV shows have to be entertaining, and I enjoy watching char- acters have meltdowns as much as the next person. My only wish is to see more than one side of mental illness. By all means, give us the hysteria and catastrophes, but at least try and balance it out if you can. Throw in some drab! We can take it.
White people are crazy. It’s a stone cold fact and nobody can dispute it. And when it comes to Hollywood, most mental illness roles (and all other roles) are played by white folks. But, and this is huge, other people are also mentally ill.
I have nothing against white people playing characters struggling with their mental health. But when you’re a non-white kid and the only people you see on-screen are white, it seems like they’re the only ones who experience mental illness. Not just that—they’re the only ones allowed to have a mental disorder.
Growing up I never saw anyone who looked like me deal with mental health issues in any form of media, so I assumed it never happened to Asian people. I rarely saw other Asian people in movies, but when I did the characters were either serious, sensible, stoic, or all three. The closest I ever got to seeing myself in a movie was in “The Joy Luck Club.” Even though I was seven when that movie came out, I could relate to the younger women purely because they’d grown up in Western society and weren’t the stereotypical taciturn Chinese daughters. I connected to the intense and strained relationships they had with their mothers. I wasn’t stoic or unflappable, in fact, I was extremely flappable, most things could have me flapped! I couldn’t bear the silent treatment and being unable to predict how long it would go on. It felt wretched, and childish, and unfair. I wanted to know what I’d done wrong, but how could I if no-one talked to me? Even as a child, I knew this form of non- communication wasn’t right. I sought advice from my older cousin, who’s more like an older sister. She’d been on the receiving end of the stony silence many times before me, but all she could do was shrug and say, “That’s how it is in our family, you know that.” “The Joy Luck Club” was the first time I realized it wasn’t just my family and it wasn’t just me. To this day, I can’t get through it without bawling my eyes out, not just because it’s a great movie, but because all those years ago, it was the validation I so desperately needed.
The next time I’d see a movie where the entire cast was Asian-American and British East Asian (and not doing martial arts) would be twenty five years later with “Crazy Rich Asians.” And I don’t need to tell you that when Eleanor Young (played by Her Royal Highness, Michelle Yeoh) tells Rachel Chu that she will “never be enough” I had a goddamn aneurysm. I cried hard, like Pixar movie hard. And I have no shame in telling you that I’m crying while writing this, because this is the effect of REPRESENTATION.
Of course, it’s not just Asians. There are millions of people who rarely see themselves in mainstream movies, let alone see themselves living with mental illness —people of color, LGBTQIA+ folks, and people with disabilities.
Mental illness does not discriminate, it does not look a certain way, and it’s more common than the common cold. It’s not just straight, white, ethereal-looking people who get depression. Asian people are depressed. Black people are depressed. Queer people are depressed. Trans people are depressed. People with disabilities are depressed.
This is my plea to Hollywood or anyone thinking of making a show or movie that includes mental illness: First, I know I may sound like an utter killjoy, so please understand that I love the drama and hyperbole of television and film. I don’t want to remove the “entertainment factor” from any show depicting depression, anxiety, bipolar, OCD, or any other specific mental illness. But I do think it’s important to present a balanced view. Show us the soul-crushing downs and the mundane ups. We want to see mental illness in all its terrible glory, from every angle and every background. If you want your character to be “dark and edgy,” then go for it—but make sure there’s more to them than their illness, because that’s how it works in real life with us mere mortals. Think twice before you make someone “dangerous” or “threatening” purely because of their mental disorder or use of medication. Just be responsible. As filmmakers, you have an immense influence on mental illness and its stigma. And I would know, because for the first eighteen years of my life, everything I knew about mental illness I learned from you.