How TV Shows Are Tackling the Relatable Struggle of Mental Health

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we rounded up the TV shows that accurately portray mental health struggles and make us all feel a little less alone.

By Samantha Bergeson May 22, 2021 2:00 PMTags
Watch: Selena Gomez & More Stars Who Opened Up About Mental Health in 2020

Audiences are finally starting to feel seen in TV. 

This May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, and what better time to celebrate shows that actively work to spotlight depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and other mental health struggles?  

For series like This Is Us and You're The Worst, anxiety and clinical depression are portrayed in honest—and recurring—ways, not so much as plot points, but as realistic parts of three-dimensional characters. Girls and Pure, both on HBO, harness the real-life experiences of their respective screenwriters with obsessive compulsive disorder, while Crazy Ex-GirlfriendModern Love and Maniac use songs and dream sequences to give glimpses into different mood disorders. BoJack Horseman, albeit an animated series, truly shined a light on self-sabotaging tendencies, familial emotional abuse, addiction and depression. 

These shows move beyond just including the topic of mental health; instead, they further de-stigmatize what so many of viewers experience in real life. And, the more TV shows portray mental health issues onscreen, the more viewers will hopefully be aware and empathetic of disorders offscreen. 

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Keep scrolling to see our top picks for how TV has handled mental health storylines that made us feel less alone.

This Is Us

This Is Us uniquely lives up to its name in spotlighting mental health. Perfectionist Randall (Sterling K. Brown) suffers from panic attacks, while brother-in-law Toby (Chris Sullivan) battled depression in season four. The family also grapples with multi-generational addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and body insecurity. Star Mandy Moore even applauded the series portrayals of relatable—and often overlooked—mental health concerns.

"The show is letting people see that everybody from every walk of life could potentially be feeling the same way that you are or suffering from this in some form or another," Moore told Huffington Post in 2019. "I hope that by talking about it on this big television show, that people can see it's not something that should be stigmatized. We have the ability to talk about it, see it and recognize that it's normal...There are means to getting through it. Realize that you do matter."

You're The Worst

The FX series was, at one point, was the best thing on TV. It's a bold statement, but for a twisted love story about two people who seemingly hate each other, You're The Worst was gloriously bingeable. From dealing with military veteran PTSD experiences to obsessive emotional turmoil, Worst wasn't afraid to show the "ugly" sides of people. Yet it was Gretchen (Aya Cash) and her series-long challenge to live with clinical depression that felt the most relatable. Cash's magnificent performance that oscillated between sarcastic public relations boss babe hustler and a woman who couldn't get out of bed redefined the term dark comedy. Showrunner Stephen Falk revealed that the series wanted to focus on Gretchen's "coping mechanisms" and how even her relationship with Jimmy (Chris Greere) couldn't miraculously cure her depression. 

"That's one of the most common complaints from people suffering from clinical depression: that people want it to be over and that's not how it works," Falk explained to The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. "It's easy to write a very complex, f––ked up character and not get a hint into the origin or the issues that lead to someone burning down their apartment, constantly getting DUIs or never being able to get the UPS tags off their door. When we started thinking about depression, it clicked and made a lot of sense. A lot of people in the creative community suffer from that, and we have a lot of experience with it." 

In My Skin

This perhaps lesser-known series premiered in March 2020 but quickly made waves with BBC fans. In My Skin tells the story of a Welsh teenager struggling to find her identity while grappling with her mother's debilitating bipolar disorder. The critically-acclaimed series was somewhat autobiographical for creator Kayleigh Llewellyn, who based the dynamic after her own relationship with her mom who suffered from bipolar disorder Type 1. In My Skin uniquely showcases not only those struggling with mental health disorders but also their friends and family affected by the diagnosis. 

"The love you have for your mother or father is so deep-seated, there's a contradiction: you love the person, but you also feel ashamed of them, because you're a teenager and you don't know any better," Llewellyn shared with The Guardian"To give an accurate representation of what it is to care for someone who's mentally ill, you have to show it warts and all. I hope that anyone who has either mental health issues or has been a carer for a mentally ill person just feels seen. That they watch it and say ‘Someone gets me'—and feel a hand on their shoulder."

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Despite having "crazy" in the title, the CW series did succeed in showcasing mental health disorders with a clear and honest take. It helped that Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) was also just so lovable as a character. The series shifted from depression, fixation and anxiety, to revealing Rebecca's borderline personality disorder diagnosis. With songs (yes, it is a musical!) like "Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal," Crazy doesn't make mental health seem so...crazy. 

Creator Bloom credited 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse with inspiring her to write Crazy. "Welcome to the Dollhouse was the closest thing I saw at the time to how I actually felt—this darkness, this feeling of being ‘other'-ed," Bloom told Variety. "So I hope my honesty helps other people come to terms with themselves."

BoJack Horseman

Never has an animated series felt so real. Netflix's BoJack Horseman beautifully captured self-sabotaging tendencies driven by depression. Titular character BoJack, voiced by Will Arnett, is a washed up sitcom star whose career has been plagued with drug dependency, existential crises and apathy. BoJack's descent into his troubled past and family history is unparalleled, and creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg harnessed the medium of animation to illustrate (literally) the effects of mental illness. The Emmy-winning series concluded after six seasons in 2020, and audiences are still reeling from the masterpiece that Bob-Waksberg helmed.

"I am proudest of my show...when people have told me, 'I talk about your show with my therapist to describe how I am feeling. Your show gives me language to identify the way that I see the world that before now I was unable to articulate,'" he explained to Slash Film"If our show can be a way for people to go, 'Oh, I'm kind of like that part of it too, even if the whole thing doesn't apply to me but that part of it speaks to me. What does that mean about me? Are there ways to change that and who can I talk to about that now that I see that this is a thing that is not just about me?' I think that is a good thing."

Girls

Lena Dunham has become known for many things over the years, but one of her greatest contributions to the screen has been giving a voice to those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In Girls, Dunham's Hannah Horvath truly struggles with OCD, and it's not presented for comedic purposes which past TV franchises have thrived on. Dunham discussed why she wanted to bring her personal struggle with the anxiety disorder to the surface, calling it "scarier than any sex scene" to film.  

"Obsessive-compulsive disorder doesn't follow any rules of logic. I wish my OCD had been helpful enough to force me to organize my socks," Dunham described to NPR. "When you talk to somebody who has OCD, their habits are super specific, and so I wouldn't really know how to perform anybody else's version of it. I kind of just had to do my own and hope it translated." Who else can't stop thinking about that heartbreaking Q-tip scene with Adam (Adam Driver) rushing to the hospital? 

Maniac

The Netflix series was chock full of A-listers like Emma Stone, Justin Theroux and Sally Field but it was lead star Jonah Hill and his performance as Owen, a newly-diagnosed schizophrenic, that grounded the show. Writer Patrick Somerville adapted the story from a Norwegian series of the same name, and added in his own personal experiences with mental health professionals like his neurologist father and psychotherapist wife. 

"There's this thing that happens where when somebody becomes ‘other' — the rest of the people in the family can't love him [or] her properly anymore," Somerville explained to Variety. "It's like a slow letting go of love and support, and it's somewhat not intentional, but every person who's involved in it has a different relationship with it. All of that was really fascinating to me in telling Owen's story and in trying to tell a story that people with mental illness would respond to."

Modern Love

In the Amazon Prime Video anthology series Modern Love, Anne Hathaway gave a scene-stealing performance as woman with bipolar disorder trying to date. Through manic soaring highs involving dance sequences to the dreary lows of depression, the episode powered through the entire range of emotions. For the actress, the role "wrecked" her emotionally. "For a month afterwards, I couldn't find my equilibrium," the Oscar winner said during the 2019 TV Critics Association press tour. "It expanded my compassion so much for people that have no choice in this matter, and it made me really honored to be asked to be a part of this story."

Pure

OCD comes in many forms, but most diagnoses are coupled with intrusive thoughts. The HBO Max series Pure—based on Rose Cartwright's titular book—spotlights a specific type of OCD based in X-rated, out of control thinking. Part coming of age story, part mental health PSA, Pure is packed with plenty of laughs but also solemn moments of feeling trapped in one's own mind. 

Screenwriter Kirstie Swain detailed the "challenge of taking the very interior experience of mental illness and translating it into action on TV" and staying true to the disorder itself. "OCD is also a very repetitive disease," Swain told Channel 4. "It doesn't have a beginning middle and an end. Intrusive thoughts don't just neatly resolve themselves in a three-act structure, and that was something that was also a big consideration when we were developing the show and in addressing the real condition versus the fictional stories. This show is ultimately about finding your people and if one person watches it and feels less alone, then I'll be happy." 

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