Many fans have applauded BoJack Horseman for the way it depicts its main character’s struggle with depression. Often uncomfortably accurate, the show explores depression from BoJack’s perspective, which is often self-damaging, harsh and hard to watch. But for many who have depression, it’s also thought-provoking representation … and from a talking horse, no less.
This Is Us (Randall Pearson and Toby Damon)
This Is Us is notable not just for its portrayal of mental health, but of men’s mental health. Few shows are willing to honestly explore the impact of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety on men, and even fewer use that aspect of a character to develop them rather than turning them into a villain. Randall has anxiety and Toby has depression, and the show, rather than turning them into “bad guys” or having other characters look down on them, shows them coping with it and exploring the complex impact mental illness has on their lives. The show has also delved into addiction and PTSD.
The Magicians (Quentin Coldwater)
“My brain breaks sometimes,” Quentin says. It’s true — Q deals with depression on and off for much of the show, and even started The Magicians in a mental hospital after checking himself in. After being admitted to Brakebills he’s asked to turn over his medication to the dean, but it becomes clear that his powers aren’t a magical cure for his depression. Regardless of what Season 4 did with his character, there’s a powerful honesty in the way Q’s mental illness is portrayed as a part of — but not the whole of — his character.
One Day at a Time (Penelope Alvarez)
One Day at a Time’s Penelope Alvarez is many things; she’s ex-military, a nurse and a mom. But Season 2 explored a different side to her: She also has anxiety, depression and PTSD. Her struggles with her mental health are portrayed honestly and realistically, and when she goes off her medication and stops going to therapy, it doesn’t go well. But it’s powerful to see a character on TV — and on a sitcom — come to terms with the fact that she’ll need therapy and medication to help herself heal.
black-ish (Rainbow Johnson)
While many characters with mental health struggles on TV tend to have depression, black-ish addressed it differently than many other programs. Bow’s depression is different than many other characters because it’s postpartum depression, and the show explores the effect that has on her and her loved ones. She chooses to go on medication for it, too. While her depression is largely addressed in and confined to a single episode, it’s worth noting simply for the fact that good, honest portrayals of postpartum depression don’t often make it to TV screens.
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Homeland (Carrie Mathison)
Most shows that deal with mental illness focus on one of two illnesses, anxiety or depression. Homeland’s Carrie is unique because she deals with neither of those — instead, she has bipolar disorder. Some aspects of her illness are heightened for television, and the show has been criticized for using her disorder to make her almost superhuman, but others are realistic. Though it might not be a perfect representation, Homeland deserves some commendation for taking such a huge step in terms of visibility and representation.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Rebecca Bunch)
Rebecca Bunch, too, isn’t troubled by anxiety or depression, though those are two of her symptoms. The main character of The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. The show took time to show how she was treated for it and made sure it was clear that she wasn’t magically “cured” of her illness simply because she had a name for it, or because she started going to therapy.
Jessica Jones (Jessica Jones)
The first season of Netflix’s inaugural Marvel show was incredible for a myriad of reasons, but it was truly remarkable in its portrayal of PTSD. Jessica was forced to commit awful acts and was raped by the villainous Kilgrave, and throughout the show she struggles to come to terms with what she did and what was done to her. While all of her coping mechanisms aren’t the healthiest, it’s refreshing that her mental illness isn’t treated as a plot device or discarded when the show finds it inconvenient.
To say it's tricky to find good representation of mental health and mental illness on television would be a vast understatement.
For every show that offers an accurate, well-rounded portrayal of what it means to live with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and others, it seems there's another that makes a villain of its mentally ill character, uses their illness as a "superhuman" trait to solve problems or ignores it completely when the plot moves on to something else. Thankfully, there are shows that don't do that — and they're helping normalize something one in five adults in the United States experience every year.
Here are eight shows we think did a good job with mental health-related storylines.