TV shows and movies have a mixed history in accurately portraying the lived experiences of those living with mental illness. As our society becomes more understanding of mental illness, and as efforts are made to decrease stigma, it makes sense that popular culture does a better job of reflecting reality.
Some, like What About Bob?, are fictional, humorous looks at what it is to live with a mental illness. Others, like A Beautiful Mind are biographical, and an examination of the challenges and stigma faced in previous generations. At best, having accurate portrayals of mental health in movies and TV shows can show people that they are not alone.
‘What About Bob?’
Frank Oz’s What About Bob? tells the story of Bob (Bill Murray) who has a massive list of phobias that interfere with his everyday life. His therapist Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) is certain that the answer to all of Bob’s problems is his own best-selling book, Baby Steps. Chaos ensues when Bob can’t leave Dr. Marvin alone, even following him while the doctor tries to take a family vacation.
There are several aspects of this story that are incredibly accurate to the experience of mental illness. Bob’s experience of experiencing such heavy anxiety that it impacts his daily life is relatable to anyone who has experienced something similar. What may be even more accurate is seeing a mental health practitioner who holds themselves up as having all the answers, exclusively.
Girl, Interrupted is based on the book of the same name by Susanna Kaysen. This is an autobiographical story of Kaysen’s experience of being hospitalized, and subsequently being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. The movie has an all-star cast, including Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie (who won an Oscar), Elisabeth Moss, and Whoopi Goldberg among others.
Borderline Personality Disorder is still one mental illness that is poorly understood, and frequently stigmatized. The fact that this was discussed so openly and in such an honest way in 2000 is a credit to Kaysen, and her courage to share her own story. Additionally, this movie captures the reality of hospitalization for mental illness, and it’s sobering.
There is much to love about Ted Lasso, and the American coach who brings his unique brand of optimism to coaching AFC Richmond. Jason Sudeikis leads this lovable cast of characters. Each character is painted as incredibly complex, with their own histories that inform their individual personalities. One of the most authentic parts of Ted Lasso is his experiences with panic attacks.
What Ted Lasso does so well is show that mental illness can exist under the surface for people who seem like they are doing “fine”. What really makes this storyline poignant is the fact that Ted’s friends, including Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) fully support him when he discloses the fact that he experiences panic attacks. Watching Ted become more honest about his reality is aspirational and heart-warming.
‘Silver Linings Playbook’
Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Cooper plays Pat, a man who’s just been discharged from a psychiatric hospital. He has bipolar disorder. His character attempts to reconcile with his wife, while developing his friendship with Lawrence’s Tiffany.
Bipolar disorder is another often misunderstood mental health condition that is so often portrayed inaccurately. Cooper plays his character through a compassionate and authentic lens. He plays this character in a very understated way, rather than descending into stereotypes about people with bipolar disorder.
‘A Beautiful Mind’
A Beautiful Mind is a biographical look at the life of John Nash (Russell Crowe). Nash was a mathematician who lived with schizophrenia. The movie acknowledges the many contributions Nash made to the field of mathematics, while acknowledging the very real struggles he faced when his mental health was at its worst.
John Nash spent many years in psychiatric institutions to treat his schizophrenia. His recovery and subsequent successes were what inspired Sylvia Nasar’s biography on which the movie was based. His return to academic work in the 1980s following his many years of treatment featured some of his best work for what he would become known.
Black-ish as a comedy never shied away from portraying serious issues. The show handled racism, sexism, and the COVID-19 pandemic were among the many real-world issues the show’s characters encountered during the series’ run. Tracee Ellis Ross received critical acclaim for her role as Dr. Rainbow Johnson.
Rainbow was always one of the show’s strongest characters. Her experience with post-partum depression after the birth of her youngest son, DeVante, is handled with grace and honesty. This is an experience that is so often spoken about too little. Any attention to this very common illness will hopefully make others feel less alone.
Marvel’s Moon Knight showcases a little-known Marvel hero, Marc Spector. Spector lives with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). This manifests as Marc having at least three alter-egos, that have different powers and abilities. He is the avatar of the Egyptian god Khonshu. Oscar Isaac plays each of Spector’s alters.
While the TV show didn’t delve too deeply into the realities of DID, it did showcase how profound childhood trauma can influence mental health into adulthood. Here, Spector is the victim of childhood abuse. It’s touching and accurate, that his mental illness is shown as protecting Spector from this abuse when he needs it most.
Sex Education features head boy Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Stirling), and his experiences at Moordale Secondary School. He’s a championship swimmer and is on a quest to get Maeve (Emma Mackey) to date him. Even with all of his successes, he still struggles with anxiety and panic attacks.
Jackson’s experience with anxiety and panic attacks is authentic, especially as a teenage experience. The fluctuations in his mental illness, depending upon whether he is accessing the right supports and is on the correct medication, is very true to life. He is able to continue living his life with these conditions if these supports are in place.
Bojack Horseman is set in an alternate reality in which humans and anthropomorphized animals live together. The titular main character is a washed-up celebrity who has to navigate his loss in status. He also has to manage the antics of other characters around him along with his own issues.
Although the premise of Bojack Horseman is fantastical, it tackles some very human struggles. Bojack himself lives with alcohol abuse. The series also features storylines on depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Even though the show is a comedy, it handles these issues very seriously.
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is based on the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey. Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is an in-patient in a psychiatric facility, ruled by the cruel Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). What follows is a meditation on tyranny, and the enduring human spirit.
Perhaps the most accurate part of this movie is how cruel the mental healthcare system has treated patients in the past. Barbaric treatments are shown in a horrifying way. It’s a sad commentary on how far the medical system has come, and how far there still is to go.
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