Mental Illness on TV

Sensitivity and political correctness have dominated this generation. One may think that this prevents the discussion of sensitive and important conversations about topics like mental illnesses. To the contrary, the media has provided viewership with a wide array of outlets to discuss these issues. However, there is a caveat to this phenomenon: it allows the media to frame mental illness based on their own standards, potentially providing its audience with inaccuracies. This catch is better known by its formal name, “The Stigma.” With the media coming in all different shapes and forms, this piece will focus on the effects of three TV shows. Specifically, the following questions will be considered:


  1. Do the TV shows accurately depict people with mental illnesses?
  2. Do the TV shows help defeat the stigma or instigate it?


Emma Pillsbury, Glee, OCD

One of the most beloved shows by the teens of yesteryear, Glee was not afraid to test limits. The main characters of this show are considered the “losers like me” of the high school social scene, but are also the underdogs. By dealing with pertinent issues through songs, Glee’s voice was heard loud and clear on its main theme of acceptance.


This show would be incomplete without sending a message about mental health. Enter Emma Pillsbury, the school social worker with a severe case of OCD. This is portrayed in her obsession with cleanliness, aversion to germs, and general personality. Her disorder is over-exaggerated and made out to be freakish.


Despite the inaccurate portrayal of OCD, Glee did great work in showing how Pillsbury dealt with her OCD. In the episode “Born This Way”, the students were challenged to embrace their insecurities. This frame of mind sparked Pillsbury to accept her diagnosis of OCD and seek treatment through psychotherapy and medication.


Although the show may have gone to extremes to describe Emma’s OCD, it ultimately sent a strong message. By showing that medication and therapy work and aren’t just for “loony bins”, as the stigma makes many believe it is, Glee does right.



Carrie Mathison, Homeland, Bipolar Disorder

Courtney Reyers, Director of Publishing for The National Alliance on Mental Illness, believes that Homeland accomplishes “one of the best jobs of portraying mental illness in modern television today with compassion, clarity and responsibility.” Many similarly report that the show’s protagonist, CIA operative Carrie Mathison, has her bipolar disorder portrayed accurately. Psychology Today chimes in, “What makes Homeland work so well in terms of its psychiatric realism, is that Carrie’s illness is an aspect of her character and a realistic part of the story, rather than her illness being the story and inaccurately portrayed. People who suffer from mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, can and do lead lives that are normal and productive, rather than sensationalized and distorted.”


This show picks the stigma up by the ears and shakes it to its core. We live in a world where people are afraid to hire those with mental disorders. Case in point, in the first episode Mathison is seen hiding her mental illness from the CIA. However, the character defies the mental illness stigma by kicking butt in her prestigious job.



Rebecca Bunch, Crazy Ex Girlfriend, Depression

Main character Rebecca Bunch was working hard at her New York job and making dough, but it made her blue. This “dramedy”, which features characters randomly breaking out in peppy songs, describing their feelings of love, angst, and the blues, depicts Bunch as an annoying, impulsive, moody, and way too perky character. She just can’t seem to get her life together. Bunch is that girl that you love to hate and hate to love. So what kind of message does the show send about people who are “crazy”?


Through all of the over-dramatized situations, songs and feelings, an impactful lesson emerges. Depression isn’t easy and neither is the process of overcoming it. Bunch is constantly in denial that she needs to get help, hates her therapist, and takes medication only when she decides she needs to. Even though some scenes are over-dramatic and inaccurately portray symptoms of someone with a mental illness, they emphasize how strongly these feelings can overcome someone. How those battling mental illness try to pretend everything is rainbows and daisies when it obviously isn’t. How they lie to themselves, make poor decisions, and can’t see things clearly. Bunch’s depression is what makes her real.


I initially viewed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as a weird show, doing a childish job of portraying mental illness. It upset me that the main character seemed like a living, breathing definition of the stigma. However, after doing more research on the intent of the creators and learning how the show is meant to be a satire of the stigma, I gained a deep appreciation of this hidden masterpiece. Rebecca Bunch is tagged as the “Crazy Ex Girlfriend” and acts just like that label. This show actually lashes out at the stigma for creating the concept of “just a girl in love” who “can’t be held responsible for her actions” through the dramatization of Bunch.



Shining Lights in an Industry of Stigma

The stigma isn’t a person, place, or thing. It’s not a physical entity and it’s non-tangible. But it has seeped its way into all of our minds. Unfortunately, many TV shows and other media outlets tend to succumb to the rules of this monster. Fortunately, there are exceptions like Glee, Homeland, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. With shows like these that are brave enough to run straight into the belly of the beast, change is coming faster than ever. These productions show that it is possible to depict characters with mental illnesses accurately without the rules of the stigma latching on to it. I’m excited to see more Emma Pillsburries, Carrie Mathisons, and Rebecca Bunches. Are you?



Do you agree with the author’s portrayal of the three tv show characters? Do the shows in question weaken or strengthen the stigma? Please share your comments, thoughts, and questions for the author below.

Tzivia Appleman
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1 Comment on “Mental Illness on TV

  1. May God Bless Everyone Of You, that bring to light ,the raw reality, of Mental Illness.The incredible courage to reveal the many deeply painful, Mental Illness’s conditions an disorders ,that so many suffer silently, .

    It is difficult for so many families to grasp the reality of how deeply damaging it can be ,to dismiss the family member ,suffering from a mental illness condition.Fear is a big factor. Fear of not understanding , how to help , . Mental Illness is highly complex, an differs with each individual.

    I truly appreciate an thank all of you who have made it possible for this “”. Now people have hope, a chance to be listened to , a chance to heal,.An those who’s loving family members have mental illness, can heal with there family by there side.

    It is extremely painful to see, there love ones, suffer mental illness,.With this support, you all have made it possible, for all those affected to have a chance to be heard, For the light, to pierce the darkness,All of you are that light. The darkness, is the despair being misunderstood, the stigma, the feeling of being so lost.But all of you are a gift, you truly make a difference in the lives of so many ,that struggle to live. Thank you , May the God of Abraham, May the God of Jacob an May the God Of Issac, Our God of our forefathers, bring you beauty, loving kindness, deep compassion, an extraordinary healing. Shalom, Marie.

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