The 6 Best (and 4 Most Controversial) Portrayals of Mental Illness in 2017
Editor’s Note: The following post contains spoilers for the TV shows and movies mentioned.
As we get ready for the new year, we wanted to give 2017 a proper send-off with a recap of the best and most controversial portrayals of mental illness in popular culture this year.
While there are many different definitions of what constitutes a “best” or “most controversial” label, when thinking about mental illness portrayals in 2017, we used one major question to guide our picks — who is the intended audience here?
Because mental health is such an “in vogue” topic these days, it’s easy to just throw in mental illness as a side plot. But in this roundup, we wanted to recognize the TV shows and movies that specifically kept the mental health community in mind and really made an effort to “get it right.” In addition, we pulled together an analysis of the most controversial (and often most talked about) representations of mental illness this year — and why they were harmful to the mental health community. As a note, we specifically decided not to title these depictions “worst” because at the end of the day, while problematic, these representations weren’t all bad.
Without further ado, here’s our list of best and most controversial depictions of mental illness in 2017:
Best Portrayals of Mental Illness in 2017
1. “This Is Us”
“This Is Us” is an emotional drama that shows how the lives of the Pearson family intersect in unexpected ways. And while the show has received critical acclaim for many reasons, it makes our list for the way it handled anxiety. Most notably, the scene in season one when Randall has a panic attack struck a chord with people in the mental health community. Of this scene, community member Sharon E. wrote, “I felt this so much. His performance and the writer’s portrayal of a panic disorder brought on by stress was spot on.”
Even some mental health professionals agree. In an interview with Health magazine, Dr. James Murrough, assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said, “This was a pretty accurate portrayal. When you’re experiencing a panic attack, it can feel like you’re dying or losing your mind,” he said. “The blurring of his vision gave the feeling of detachment or unreality. Depersonalization or feeling disconnected from your body is another common symptom of a panic attack.”
Additionally, from a representation standpoint, it’s also important the show depicts the mental health struggles of a black man. According to Mental Health America, black men are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than white men, but are consistently more apprehensive about seeking professional help.
2. “BoJack Horseman”
Editor’s note: If you have experienced childhood emotional abuse, the following analysis could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
“BoJack Horseman,” is an adult cartoon that follows BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett), a washed-up 90s TV star. Throughout the show, we see his struggles with addiction, relationships and maintaining his celebrity status — all the while satirizing Hollywood and current events. The Netflix show has gained a cult following for its accurate portrayal of depression, but really hit its stride this year in season 4 when it explored the mental health effects of childhood emotional abuse and neglect.
Season 4 — which interestingly starts without the show’s titular character appearing at all — explores BoJack’s familial backstory in depth. Without giving too much away, we get to see how BoJack’s mother came to be the verbally abusive adult woman known for telling her son in season 2:
You were born broken, that’s your birthright. And now you can fill your life with projects your books and your movies and your little girlfriends but it won’t make you whole. You’re BoJack Horseman. There’s no cure for that.
And while this kind of language can be particularly hard to hear if you grew up experiencing emotional abuse, it’s important that the show delves into the way familial trauma can drip down from generation to generation. For example, in the episode entitled, “Stupid Piece of Sh*t,” we become privy to what it’s actually like to live in BoJack’s head, and how his own thought processes were informed by his abusive childhood. In an interview with Decider, creator and show runner Rafael Bob-Waksberg said of this episode:
We had kind of established before — well established at this point — that BoJack is not a guy you want to be or a head you want to live in. We thought that it would be cool to really kind of push that and kind of explore what is it like to be living with that self-abuse all the time. How does that feel? And just kind of hear for an audience of no one, just himself, how hard he is on himself. How difficult it is to shut that voice out felt really interesting.
Though previous season finales have ended with us wondering if BoJack will ever get a happy ending, season 4 doesn’t end on a hopeless tone at all. Though we won’t say exactly how (don’t want to spoil everything!), for the first time, we see BoJack unexpectedly get a chance to have a family he never had growing up.
3. “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend”
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a musical comedy-drama series on The CW following Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) as she moves from New York to California to try to win back her childhood ex-boyfriend, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III). In seasons 1 and 2, viewers watched Rebecca struggle with her mental health and engage in self-destructive behaviors, but she is never given a diagnosis. Finally this year, in season 3, Rebecca is officially diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” makes our list not only for depicting a character with a not-often discussed mental illness diagnosis, but for handling its depiction with care and accuracy.
Perhaps the most obvious symptom of BPD portrayed in the series is emotional intensity, present in Rebecca’s relationship with Josh. For example, every episode title of the three seasons includes Josh’s name, highlighting the intense emotional attachment Rebecca has to him.
“For me it was spot on, her life was almost like my life on TV,” Mighty community member Sophie S. commented. “She portrayed BPD perfectly for me.”
This is exactly what show creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh Mckenna were aiming for. To write the character accurately and in a humanizing way, Bloom and Brosh Mckenna read multiple books and workbooks about borderline personality disorder.
“We were aware of and trying to be careful about [BPD] and specific about it, and not be cavalier about it,” Brosh McKenna told Vanity Fair.“But we were excited to kind of dig into the work of it. . . . We really felt like we owed the audience a deeper understanding of her mental health, and where she had been, and where she was going.”
“Black-ish” is an ABC sitcom that centers on the Johnsons, an upper middle-class African American family. The show deals with timely social and political issues including the 2016 election, race, sexuality and police brutality. Since season 2, the show has received critical acclaim, but was particularly notable this year for portraying a mental health issue that is so often swept under the rug — postpartum depression.
In an episode entitled “Mother Nature” in season 4, we see Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) battle depression after giving birth to baby DeVante. Writer and executive producer Corey Nickerson wrote this particular storyline based on personal experience. In an interview with Variety, Nickerson said she opened up about her postpartum depression in the writers’ room, and soon found out other staffers had similar experiences. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, around 1 in 7 women will experience postpartum depression after giving birth.
“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?”
As Nickerson says, strong, successful women (and men) can experience mental health difficulties, and should not be judged or defined by them. After all, just because someone is a parent, doesn’t mean they “have it all together.” This kind of humanizing approach to mental illness in parenthood is a much-needed addition to the conversation surrounding mental health.
“Feed” is a movie about the psychological implications of living with an eating disorder. Written and produced by Troian Bellisario (best known for playing Spencer on “Pretty Little Liars”), the story follows Olivia (Troian Bellisario) and her descent into anorexia following the death of her twin brother Matt (Tom Felton).
“Feed”‘s strength as a movie is not necessarily in its cinematic prowess, but more in the way it illustrates what it’s like to be in the mind of someone with an eating disorder — because as those in eating disorder recovery know, eating disorders aren’t just about food. Though the movie does feature the arguably overdone trope of a young white woman struggling with anorexia, it approaches it in a different way, focusing less on behaviors and more on the psychological processes that drive them.
This is something Mighty contributor Sarah Bailes discusses in her piece, “The New Eating Disorder Movie We Should Be Watching.”
One other thing I loved about “Feed” was that it didn’t focus on behaviors or numbers or weight loss or her body or anything like that. Yes, it shows Olivia restricting meals and going on runs, but that is not the main focus of the movie by any means. The focus of the movie is on her relationship with ghost Matthew — also known as her eating disorder. I like this focus because it focuses on the part of the eating disorder that I believe everyone can relate to — the voice inside your head. Everyone has different struggles with behaviors and weights and whatnot, but I believe those of us with eating disorders all struggle with the eating disorder voice. So I think it was really cool to just kinda throw away all the “symptom” stuff and focus on the actual root of the disorder.
According to Bellisario, this was completely intentional. “What I wanted to do was create a situation in which [viewers] could see the physical manifestation of the disease but also how close it is to the person themselves,” Bellisario told The Mighty in an exclusive interview. “That’s why it has to be Olivia’s twin brother, Matt, who is her everything in the world… I needed them to understand that not only is it a disease, it’s your best friend. It’s your secret. It’s your strength, and it’s your weakness.”
6. “Lady Dynamite”
“Lady Dynamite,” tells the loosely-based real-life story of stand-up comedian and actress Maria Bamford, and her experience being hospitalized for bipolar disorder and a suicide attempt. The show was praised for its realistic and comedic portrayal of mental illness.
In a review by Slate magazine, Evelyn Anne Clauson wrote,
Instead of treating mental illness as an obstacle for a character to overcome, or a device to explain otherwise nonsensical actions, “Lady Dynamite” builds it into the very fabric of its world. It mines tragedy for comedy, showing us a character who is herself struggling to find the humor within her own terrible pain. 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.
The second season (which aired this year) keeps mental illness as part of the show’s core “fabric,” expanding it so we get to see how Maria’s past affected her current unhealthy coping mechanisms. Because her experience of mania and depression appear to correlate with her periods of career success and failure respectively, we also see how her unhealthy coping affects her career and work habits — and how she eventually learns to put her mental health first. Needless to say, prioritizing self-care is something many in the mental health community can relate to.
In a review of the show for A.V. Club Danette Chavez wrote,
Where the second season most sharply departs from the first is in living more comfortably in the moment. Instead of laying Maria’s (and Bamford’s) heart bare every half hour, “Lady Dynamite” is now building a protective layer around it. For all the cathartic comfort we’ve found in her struggles, Bamford is transcending the need to suffer for—and in—her art. And the show is all the better for it.
Most Controversial Portrayals of Mental Illness in 2017
1. “13 Reasons Why”
Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following analysis could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
“13 Reasons Why” is a Netflix original series based on the novel by Jay Asher titled, “Thirteen Reasons Why.” The show was the “passion project” of executive producer Selena Gomez and follows Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) as he searches to figure out the “cause” of classmate Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) suicide via 13 pre-recorded audio tapes where Hannah details the role 13 people played in her death.
And while it was encouraging to see suicide addressed in an extremely popular show, unfortunately the topic was presented in a triggering — and even dangerous — way. In fact, in a study on the internet searches immediately following the show’s release found that suicide-related searches were 19 percent higher than average for the 19 days following the show’s release.
I have no doubt the “13 Reasons Why” cast and crew had the best intentions in trying to create a show about suicide prevention, but the suicide “murder mystery” format both simplified and glorified the complex issue of suicide, and completely disregarded the media guidelines for reporting on suicide. Creating content about mental health without keeping the needs of the mental health community in mind is not the way to go when discussing heavy topics like suicide. This is something Mighty contributor Rachael Sloan wrote about in her piece, “Why I Wish I Didn’t Watch ’13 Reasons Why'”
“13 Reasons Why” could cause more harm than good amongst the very audience for whom it intends to advocate. “13 Reasons Why” isn’t particularly hopeful or optimistic about the future, and it’s clear the series was not made for someone like me.
As a woman and a suicide attempt survivor who still struggles with mental health, I didn’t find “13 Reasons Why” to be unrealistic. Rather, I found it to be such a dark but accurate portrayal of familiar experiences that it triggered emotional responses I didn’t expect. The overall message surrounding the need for change surrounding mental health, rape culture and everyday misogyny is powerful but dismal.
Though Hannah as a character was relatable to many people, the reality is that when we think of “13 Reasons Why,” many only think of one scene — the scene that graphically depicts Hannah taking her own life. In centralizing the plot around her death, the show equates “Hannah the character” with “Hannah’s death.” We can’t really celebrate Hannah — even though she’s a rare character in pop culture who has experienced mental health challenges and trauma — because what we associate with her is the graphic suicide scene we can’t unsee. It’s a shame that we can’t fully acknowledge Hannah’s importance as a character because in doing so, we are inadvertently celebrating a show that dehumanized her, making her suicide a plot tool in a pseudo-revenge “murder mystery.”
“Split” is a psychological horror film directed by M. Night Shyamalan, following Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). Kevin has 23 distinct personalities, or “alters” and throughout the course of the movie, he kidnaps and imprisons three teenage girls in an isolated underground facility. Upon the movie’s release, more than 20,000 people signed a petition to boycott the movie for the way it characterizes dissociative identity disorder (DID) and promotes transphobia.
The movie was especially harmful to people who live with DID. In her piece about “Split,” Mighty contributor Chris Alter (who lives with dissociative identity disorder) wrote,
To the people who claim this is “just a movie.”
It’s not. It’s misinformation. It’s fear-mongering. It’s discriminatory and stigmatizing…
The character is a villain because of his DID. He is a predator.
People with DID are survivors of unspeakable childhood trauma – to then be tarred with the same brush as this kind of predator is truly insulting and disrespectful.
What’s more, movies like this promote fear of people with mental illness — when in reality, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators. Though there have been more recent attempts to get mental illness “right” in the media, the existence of stigmatizing portrayals like “Split” remind us we have a long way to go still in breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness.
3. “To the Bone”
Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following analysis could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.
The Netflix original movie “To the Bone” follows Ellen “Eli” (Lily Collins) as she enters inpatient anorexia treatment, and her subsequent journey in eating disorder recovery. Though the movie was supported by the eating disorder awareness organization Project Heal, when the trailer was released, it was immediately met with criticism from the eating disorder community.
In addition to depicting triggering images of a much-thinner Collins (who struggled with an eating disorder herself and was asked to lose weight for the role), the movie was criticized for focusing on yet another young, white, thin, cisgender female struggling with anorexia. This is something Mighty contributor Lee Thomas wrote about in their piece, “Why the ‘to the Bone’ Trailer Feels Like the Same Eating Disorder Story We’ve Always Been Told.”
There’s nothing wrong with being a thin person, or being a thin person with an eating disorder. But the problem is that it is often the only image we are given, and it’s not even close to being representative of the reality of every person struggling with an eating disorder. Eating disorders affect people across all intersections of society and life — yes, chubby and fat people included…
But this isn’t really about “To the Bone,” itself. It’s about the narrative we’re given over and over again about eating disorders: that you have to be extremely thin for your eating disorder to be life-threatening, which is simply not true.
Another aspect of the trailer that drew criticism was its dramatization of and emphasis on outward eating disorder behaviors. In the trailer, we see Collins counting calories, exercising excessively and struggling at meal times — all things we already associate with anorexia. And while these things definitely happen in many people’s eating disorder journeys, emphasis on how eating disorders “look” on the outside can end up glossing over the very real mental illness that drives these behaviors — the psychological implications you can’t “see.”
4. “The Show”
Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following analysis and movie trailer could be triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
“The Show” is a movie created by “Breaking Bad” actor Giancarlo Esposito, and follows reality TV show host Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel) who starts a reality TV show that encourages people to die by suicide on-air. If this sounds horrible to you, it’s because it is.
And while some of the controversial movies analyzed before made (arguably unsuccessful) attempts to raise mental health awareness, this movie misses the mark so completely that the L.A. Times wrote, “The movie attempts to comment on reality-show culture, but it offers little insight beyond its ill-conceived premise. With suicide at its center, ‘The Show’ is both tone-deaf and a tonal mess.”
People in the mental health community agree. One Twitter user said, “For them to take something so delicate such as suicide and make it out to be a game is disgusting.”
So I'm sitting here watching @joshduhamel play this movie #TheShow nd for them to take something so delicate such as suicide and make it out to be a game is disgusting. But u gotta make ???? meanwhile people kill themselves everyday because they suffer from a disease #depression
— Chrischelle White (@iluvumarkus) November 15, 2017
She’s right. Suicide isn’t a joke, and — I can’t believe we even have to say it — is not entertainment. Not only does the trailer not have a content or “trigger” warning at all, it actually shows contestants taking their own lives. Because of this, we have not embedded the link to the trailer in this piece.
It’s important to show mental illness in pop culture because it’s something that affects millions every year — but it’s also a topic that needs to be handled with respect and care. In 2018, we hope to see even more accurate portrayals of mental health in the media.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
Lead Photo via Netflix YouTube channel and “BoJack Horseman” Facebook page