The Mighty Logo

10 TV Shows That Got Mental Illness (Mostly) Right

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Finding an accurate representation of mental illness on TV is no small feat. When the media we consume seems to always depict people with mental illness as “dangerous” or “scary,” it can be easy to wonder if compassionate depictions of mental illness exist on TV.

Luckily, a lot of newer shows have been making an effort to “get it right” and show mental illness in a realistic and humanizing way. These shows can evoke some powerful responses in viewers who may be seeing their own struggles accurately represented on screen for the first time. With recommendations from our mental health community, we analyzed 10 shows to see how they portrayed mental illness — and included where you can watch them!

1. ‘This Is Us’

“This Is Us” is an emotional drama that shows how the lives of the Pearson family intersect in unexpected ways. The show was praised for the way it has handled anxiety. Most notably was the scene in season one when Randall had a panic attack. 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.”

And while most agree the panic attack scene is accurate, some have taken issue with the way Randall’s brother dropped everything he was doing to support him — not because it wasn’t great, but because it wasn’t altogether realistic. In his piece, My One Reservation About the Panic Attack Scene in ‘This Is Us,’ Mighty contributor Matthew Martin-Ellis wrote

I hate to be the guy who takes issue with a well-meaning (and in many ways progressive) television scene, especially one that sheds light on a character struggling with mental illness. But… My concern is with the selfless and beautiful, yet ultimately unrealistic and unfeasible response of the character’s brother… The responses of allies we see in the realm of fiction seem increasingly idealized and impractical.

And while it’s unfortunate that we can’t always expect perfect responses like these from our loved ones, it is nice to see a model for a good way to respond. 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.

Where you can watch: streaming on Hulu.

2. ‘Supernatural’

“Supernatural” is a show that focuses on the Winchester brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) as they hunt supernatural beings like demons, ghosts, and monsters. The show boasts an engaged fandom, garnering a reputation for accurately portraying struggles with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

“I think that Supernatural really hits it out of the park with their representation of mental illness,” Mighty community member Lauren S. wrote, adding:

Certainly the show has meaningful depictions of depression, anxiety, and shows how the characters deal with those issues separately. Even more impressive, I think, is the show’s ability to prove time and time again, that in the face of insurmountable darkness and despair, you can do it. You can fight off the darkness and beat it back. The show is a perfect allegory for mental illness. Though Dean and Sam are constantly fighting a big bad [guy], they never give up, and push through to see another tomorrow.

Where you can watch: streaming on Netflix.

3. ‘BoJack Horseman’

“BoJack Horseman,” follows the washed-up 90s TV star, BoJack (Will Arnett) and his struggles with addiction, relationships, and maintaining his celebrity status, all the while satirizing the entertainment industry and current events. The Netflix show has gained a cult following but is perhaps best known for its accurate portrayal of depression. But the show didn’t necessarily intend for it to be that way. In an interview with The Huffington Post, the show’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg said, “It was never our top priority to be the voice of depression.” He explained they were just trying to capture who the character was.

But regardless of intent, “BoJack Horseman” resonates with many folks who struggle with depression. As Mighty community member Ximena P. commented, “‘BoJack Horseman’ is honestly one of the most realistic depictions of living with anxiety and depression. I love that it shows the ugly sides of depression rather than painting the typical ‘beautiful and tragically sad life.’ It shows the side of feeling numb and empty and honestly not caring about anyone or anything for long periods of time, while having other moments where you care so much it becomes hard to function.”

Though I completely agree that the show does a great job of showing the struggles of depression, I’ll admit, as someone with depression, it was hard for me to watch at times when things hit close to home. Ximena echoed this feeling when she said, “I should probably say that a lot of people find it triggering or depressing. It features alcoholism and other types of substance abuse so, it isn’t always an easy watch.”

Where you can watch: streaming on Netflix.

4. ‘You’re the Worst’

“You’re the Worst” is a comedy-drama about two unlikable people attempting to be in a relationship with one another. The show’s central relationship includes self-involved writer Jimmy (Chris Geere) and self-destructive PR executive Gretchen (Aya Cash). The second season, which focuses on Gretchen’s clinical depression, provides a unique look into how mental illness affects relationships.

“Believe it or not, ‘You’re the Worst’ does a great depiction of mental illness. They tackle depression,” Mighty community member Dana B. wrote. “[The portrayal of] depression was dead on. Plus it’s super funny in turn, while it’s targeting real issues, so I find it a perfect show for me.”

In season two, Gretchen comedically explains her struggles to her narcissistic boyfriend Jimmy:

OK, so here’s an interesting thing that you don’t know about me: I am clinically depressed. It’s been going on my whole life so I’m actually really good at handling it. It strikes me whenever and I have no idea why, but it’s fine. I’m sorry I never told you — slipped my mind! And who knows? With the right attitude this could be a really fun adventure for everyone. So the only thing I need from you is to not make a big deal of it and be OK with how I am and the fact that you can’t fix me.

When asked about the inclusion of this aspect of Gretchen’s character, show creator Stephen Falk said:

“It wasn’t something that we felt like we had to do to explain her bad behavior. It was just a complication that seemed to fit.”

Where you can watch: streaming on Hulu.

5. ‘United States of Tara’

“United States of Tara” follows suburban mother Tara (Toni Collette) through her journey with dissociative identity disorder (DID) and how it affects all aspects of her life — including her marriage, family, and career. Unlike other depictions of DID, “United States of Tara” does not show DID as inherently dangerous, and according to Mighty community member, Astrid N. the show is an “amazing depiction of dissociative identity disorder.”

Though the show represents DID fairly in many ways, it isn’t without flaws. For example, each of Tara’s alters is fairly “extreme” in being noticeably distinctive from the other alters, and each of her “transitions” is very apparent. This choice was likely made so viewers could follow the plot visually, but nonetheless, it still doesn’t represent the condition as many people with DID experience it.

In their piece, “13 Misconceptions About Dissociative Identity Disorder,” Mighty contributor Chris Alter wrote,

Often switches between alters are not obvious… When DID develops in childhood, it is to protect the child from trauma and allow them to have as normal a childhood as possible. It is meant to go unnoticed.

Where you can watch: streaming on Hulu.

6. ‘Parks and Recreation’

Though “Parks and Recreation” is primarily known for its funny characters and moments, some applaud the show for how it depicted depression through the notoriously “happy” character, Chris Traeger. Mighty community member Kari O. said, “The way they show how Chris spirals into depressive episodes was so relatable for me. Because I can be so happy, but one little thing can send me into a complete downhill spiral in minutes.” — Kari O.

This kind of character is so important to show because oftentimes depression doesn’t “look” like what we think it does. While we often generalize depression as being “sad,” the reality is it can sometimes look like the exact opposite. In her piece, 19 Problems Only Happy People With Depression Understand, Mighty contributor Jill Alexandra wrote,

My biggest fear is usually that someone can see right through me. As a result, I sometimes force myself to put on an unnaturally enthusiastic and upbeat persona when I am really in a bad place, out of fear that people will be able to see the truth if I don’t.

Where you can watch: streaming on Netflix.

7. ‘Shameless’

The show is a comedy-drama that centers on Frank Gallagher, a single father of six children. “Shameless” is also a fan-favorite in the mental health community for its depiction of bipolar disorder, specifically through Ian’s character. As Mighty community member Casey R. said, “I was just diagnosed when I started watching the show. It was comforting to see Ian go through his ups and downs and survive.”

In a promo for the show, actor Cameron Monaghan said he prepared for the role by watching documentaries and reading autobiographies written by people living with bipolar disorder.

The representation of bipolar disorder and how taking medication can be helpful in recovery has resonated with many viewers. In a HelloFlo blog about “Shameless,” Sebastian Zulch wrote:

Watching Ian’s journey has always been heart-wrenching for me because I could relate so much. But I appreciated the show’s positive portrayal of mental illness and medicine, which helped normalize my own experiences a little more. As someone who hasn’t been able to hold down a full time job yet, Ian showed me that it’s possible to get to a point where you can thrive in the workplace and properly advocate for yourself when you’re bipolar and on meds.

Where you can watch: streaming on Netflix.

8. ‘Please Like Me’

“Please Like Me” is an Australian show based on the real-life experiences of show’s star and director Josh Thomas. Perhaps most notable about the show is that it has brought mental health to the forefront by showing depictions of psychiatric hospitalization, panic attacks, and depression.

In an interview with Pivot, Thomas said his goal was “doing mental health in a way that I thought was sort of honest and a bit true to life.”

Mighty community member Lisa K. seems to agree. She wrote, “[Josh Thomas’s] mother has bipolar disorder and he later befriends a woman with depression and dates a guy with severe anxiety. They do a great job of portraying the realities of these illnesses. It’s really relatable and real, but also just a really funny show.”

Where you can watch: streaming on Hulu

9. ‘Jessica Jones’

The Netflix original series “Jessica Jones” was based on a Marvel comic of the same name. The show has been praised for the way it handles post-traumatic stress disorder. Describing the show, Mighty community member Burrow K. wrote:

Jessica Jones’ is hands down the best representation of PTSD I have ever seen. I seriously cried seeing my struggle depicted so accurately on TV. She wasn’t perfect, she wasn’t depicted in the way society has deemed “acceptable.” She wasn’t the strong, silent survivor: her survival was messy, her flashbacks unpredictable, her coping mechanisms possibly less than ideal… I could go on and on and on.

The show’s focus on trauma and mental illness was intentional. When asked about the way the show dealt with abuse, rape, and PTSD, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg told the Los Angeles Times:

Playing them as honestly as possible was very much the objective from the beginning. The tone is meant to be very grounded and real, so you have to be very grounded and real with whatever subjects you’re dealing with. So there was no glossing this over. It was really an exploration of a survivor and her healing, to the degree that she does, in facing those demons quite literally.

Where you can watch: streaming on Netflix.

10. ‘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. The show has been lauded 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.

Mighty community member Emily B. agreed, adding, “It’s funny and relatable, but at the same time consistently deals with how difficult it is for someone to manage bipolar symptoms, especially working in a field like the entertainment industry that really promotes a more ‘manic’ performance style and schedule. Huge thank you to Maria Bamford for putting herself out there like that.”

Where you can watch: streaming on Netflix.

Did we miss a show? Share your favorites in the comments below.

Header image via “BoJack Horseman” and Marvel’s “Jessica Jones” Facebook pages

Originally published: October 27, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home