Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Hannah Fuhlendorf M.A, LPC
5 TV Shows About Mental Illness That Depict It Realistically
Published Jan 27th, 2022 & updated on Jan 28th, 2022
TV isn’t real life, and we’re thankful for that. If reality was a television-esque emotional roller coaster filled with ups and downs, drama, intrigue, and plot twists galore, then holy cow, we’d need some very intense therapy. Maybe a vacation or two. But sometimes, TV tries its best to represent real issues. TV shows about mental illness can be harmful when done poorly (we’re looking at you, 13 Reasons Why), but it can also be validating when approached in a respectful way. We’d obvs love to see more shows about mental health with the latter approach.
No tv shows about mental illness will be perfect. Things are often glamorized, dramatized, and shortened for run times. Romanticizing mental illness for views is quite common. So which TV shows have the best representations of mental illness? Let’s break down five tv shows about mental illness that got it (mostly) right.
A quick warning: because these shows deal with mental health topics, they may be triggering. There are resources available to find out if TV shows about mental illness would be okay for you to watch. Does The Dog Die was started to help people avoid movies where the dog dies, but is now used to list a variety of triggers for TV shows and movies. Unconsenting Media focuses on sexual violence trigger warnings. IMDb’s Parental Guide sections goes into detail about what viewers can expect to see in a show or movie.
Depression can sometimes be presented on television as a glamorous “life is pain” attitude that makes you mysterious and brooding. But a lot of the time, depression can manifest in the absence of any feeling at all — with a lot of self-destructive tendencies. This is what Bojack Horseman presents with the main character.
Bojack’s struggles with depression and substance abuse hurt him and often other people in his life. His past fame and current wealth does nothing to remedy his depression, nor does any amount of recognition or love from the people in his life. It’s a really honest portrayal of depression because there is no one-stop fix or magic cure for it. Bojack tries everything to feel anything and often ends up feeling empty and alone.
There are moments of real hope in the show, though, which makes Bojack Horseman such a nuanced portrayal. Depression is absolutely an uphill battle, but as shown in the show, there are ways to manage it.
There have been some bumps in the road for TV shows about mental illness—especially when it comes to portraying autism. Autism will look different for every person, and it exists on a spectrum, which means that different people will have symptoms and a variety of ways the symptoms will present themselves. Even when shows consult autism experts, like The Good Doctor and Atypical did, there can be missteps along the way. One thing that The Bridge does differently in their portrayal of autism is that the autistic protagonist is a woman.
The Bridge is an American TV show that was adapted from a Scandinavian crime thriller. It has an autistic protagonist named Sonya Cross. She struggles with social conventions and protocols, like many people with autism do. She also has some physical self-soothing stims that are displayed in the show. While her high functioning autism is clear in the way her character acts and interacts with other characters, it’s not the focus of the show itself. The character’s portrayal has inspired women watching by seeing themselves on the screen, or bringing them to seek an autism diagnosis.
Young girls are less likely to be diagnosed with autism than young boys. This is because they tend to be better at masking than boys (particularly on the high functioning end of the spectrum). As well, autism is thought to affect men at a 4:1 ratio to women. Seeing Sonya Cross portrayed on screen can really make an autistic woman feel validated by the representation, which is a major benefit of TV shows about mental illnesses.
Big Mouth is great at taking abstract feelings and experiences and personifying them. Their Hormone Monsters explain what it’s like to go through puberty in crass and hilarious ways. But the show also takes on mental health.
The Depression Kitty that follows Jessi around is comforting at first, but quickly becomes a bigger weight than she can handle — much like the experiences that many have with depression. As well, Anxiety Mosquitoes appear in the fourth season, biting and nagging at the characters until their worries become catastrophes in their minds, driving them to distance themselves from their friends or even lash out. The therapist in the show introduces the characters to a gratitude practice (which is personified by the Gratitoad). While it doesn’t get rid of depression and anxiety, it does provide them with tools to manage the feelings when they crop up.
Even though Big Mouth is a whole lot of dick jokes and crude humour, it addresses mental health in a very empathetic and understanding way. It validates teens’ experiences with mental health rather than dismissing them, which is suuuper important.
If you’re also looking to start a gratitude practice, check out our course, Practicing Gratitude, in the DiveThru app! Registered therapist Simone Saunders will walk you through the benefits of gratitude, how to practise it, and how to make it a consistent habit. It’s not just for Netflix cartoon characters!
The charming hit Sex Education is about sex. Obviously. But like Big Mouth, it’s about so much more than that, and the second season really makes that clear.
In Season 2, Sex Education dealt with issues like sexual assault, self-harm, sexualities like asexuality, exploring attraction, finding support groups and talking about trauma, and honestly so many more mental health topics. Teen-focused shows often moralize these issues, but Sex Education does not. The unfortunate reality is that many teens will face sexual assault in their lifetimes. The show explores that traumatizing reality. Addressing the shit things that happen in life through TV can start conversations about at home, or validate someone’s experience.
It also depicts adults having healthy and pleasurable sex lives, which helps normalize healthy sexuality for every age group. Just go watch it. So good.
Even people who seem very happy-go-lucky can struggle with their mental health. Ted Lasso does a fantastic job of portraying that with its main character.
Ted’s public persona is a positive thinker who believes in the power of hard work and optimism. But as viewers soon see signs of toxic positivity. Ted struggles with his marriage, his relationship with his son, and his past with his father. He begins to have panic attacks at the end of the first season, and throughout season two. Ted speaks to a psychologist and begins working through past trauma.
The show does a great job of portraying two under-discussed aspects of mental health: outwardly-happy people hiding mental health struggles, and mental health in professional sports. Athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have opened up about the importance of taking care of your mental health as an athlete. Ted Lasso shows how mental health support can really help athletes, coaches, and basically anyone work through their concerns.
Next time you’re looking for something to binge on your day off but don’t want to waste your time with shows that get mental health all wrong, give these a watch!