NBC’s highly rated show This is Us has captured the hearts of viewers across the country as it chronicles the lives of three siblings searching for love and fulfillment. The comedy-drama follows the three Pearson siblings across numerous decades, navigating relatable storylines of friendship, family, tragedy, and hope. The show is particularly notable for its portrayal of characters dealing with various mental health challenges. While it is certainly commendable for a popular TV show to address the topic, they do not always deal with it in an appropriate way.
The Toby Damon Story
Toby Damon, a main character on the show, is a prime example of This is Us sending the wrong message regarding mental health realities. At the onset of the show, we are introduced to Toby, an upbeat and jolly fellow who becomes Kate Pearson’s love interest. At the conclusion of the second season, however, we see an entirely different Toby – one who is crippled by depression and sadness. With the start of the following season, the audience learns of Toby’s childhood struggles with depression. In a shocking early-season scene, Toby flushes his antidepressant medication down the toilet in an attempt to help Kate become pregnant.
Failing The Audience
There are several concerning flaws with this portrayal of Toby and his association with depression. First, with the stark difference in character that is seen between Toby on his meds and Toby off of his meds, the viewer is led to think that Toby is only cheerful and engaging because of his anti-depressant medications. As soon as he throws the meds away, he simultaneously throws away his jolly disposition. This supports the stigmatic and false understanding of anti-depressants that they are an agent which changes the fundamental nature of who a person is. Rather, they simply assist in making sure the person’s brain chemicals are properly balanced.
Second, this storyline may improperly leave viewers with the impression that anti-depressants lead to infertility. There is, in fact, no concrete scientific evidence that they actually reduce sperm count as the show writers had Toby presume.
Third, the reason why Toby stops taking his medications is not supported by a medical provider. Without consulting his doctor, let alone anyone knowledgeable in the medical field, Toby decides to take matters into his own hands and disposes of his anti-depressants.
A fourth major issue with Toby’s storyline is the portrayal of his behavior after discontinuing his antidepressant medication. Toby’s mood swings and erratic behavior become concerning to Kate to the point that he admits having stopped his medication. Particularly noticeable is Toby acting inappropriately by breaking down crying when he learns that Kate is finally pregnant. The main problem here is that a viewer who may not know much about depression will now have a false view of the condition and the behavioral effects of its medications. Major mood swings are not in reality typical of depression but might manifest with bipolar disorder if untreated.
Differentiating Fact From Hollywood
My main goal in writing this piece is not to simply bash this popular show, as I myself watch it and plan to continue to watch it in the future. I do believe, however, it is important as intellectual and reflective individuals to not blindly accept “lessons” conveyed to us by popular TV shows. Rather, we should be able to question those underlying messages and know how to recognize a true portrayal of mental health challenges vs. a Hollywood portrayal.
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