With the way technology has advanced, watching television has never been easier, making it a constant part of our lives. Whether you only tune into the news once a day or binge watch Netflix shows every second you can; it’s pretty hard to escape the reach of TV. Luckily for the social work sector though, there’s been an increased synergy between mental health and TV shows recently, with showrunners finding ways to provide more support or portray issues in a more realistic way.
Before we continue though, we will hold our hands up and accept 100% that there are still elements of popular TV shows that don’t get it right with mental health. UnREAL has been criticised for creating “a dishonest portrayal” by not providing a clear diagnosis for main character Rachel. Shows like Sherlock or Breaking Bad veer dangerously close to romanticising issues to protect the ‘genius’ image of a lead character. It’s clear that the balance is still not quite right across every network, country or genre between the inclusion of mental health and the style or relevance of the portrayal. Television is an excellent platform to discuss mental health as it makes it a more accessible subject matter for many people who may not be clear on the intricacies of mental health; however, accuracy should not be sacrificed to further a plot point. The misrepresentation of complex issues like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia can be incredibly damaging, as it embeds the wrong support mechanisms into the minds of the general population and risks alienating people living with these mental health issues as their reality isn’t as “cool” as what is shown on TV.
We’re here to talk more positively this time.
We wanted to shine the light on certain shows that are going beyond the usual “this programme contains adult themes” style message to support their audiences. Talking about mental health is a difficult process and seeing problematic situations play out up close and personal on a TV screen might trigger negative reactions from people. These can be minor, like maybe feeling a bit more anxious than normal, but can provoke much more drastic actions – as seen with the rise in suicides after the release of the first season of 13 Reasons Why. Therefore, with TV having this influence over our lives and emotional states, it’s essential that producers put systems in place to protect viewers. Some of your target audience may understand your intended message – like the way 13 Reasons Why was “applauded by Generation Z and Millennials for dealing frankly with the crisis in youth mental health” – while others may not, and so controversy ensues.
Sharp Objects, the new HBO adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s successful novel, will deal with several mental health issues as the main character (played by Amy Adams) deals with a traumatic past and it’s been reported that each episode will be followed by a PSA (public service announcement) about dealing with mental health. This shows a marked recognition of the risk of handling mental health issues, and a decision to portray them accurately but provide help and advice; instead of going down a more dramatic, misrepresentative route. Here in the UK, Hollyoaks has been praised recently for their storyline involving a schizoaffective disorder. This is Us, the show taking America by storm and tentatively making its way across the pond, has dealt with anxiety, drug addiction, alcoholism and body image issues in its first 2 seasons already. These are subjects which usually make audiences feel slightly uncomfortable, but viewers are welcoming these conversations with open arms. We want to talk about the negative feelings we experience and empathising with beloved characters is a natural first step.
Water cooler talk has always revolved around what was on TV the night before. With so many more viewing options now, it’s become a way to recommend insightful or entertaining shows; and it’s opening the door for more involvement of mental health with TV. Breaking down a recent episode or storyline can be an easier way for someone to open up about their own struggles; so if TV programmes can show a variety of issues more regularly and honestly, the stigma around talking about mental health will slowly be worn away. If the characters we look up to, love or obsess over are seen to be more human and imperfect people, it will encourage us to be more accepting of our own flaws and learn to treat them in the right way.
We’ve got a long way to go before the integration of mental health and TV shows is a perfect match, but for now, we’re happy to celebrate the minor successes we’re seeing recently. To all the showrunners, directors, writers and actors who bring us moving and honest portrayals of struggles we see every day in our sector, we tip our hats to you. Keep up the good work!