By: Melissa Campos, Kitty Cheung, Winona Young, and Zoe Vedova
Mainstream media portrayals of mental health issues and mental illnesses vary enormously, and it can be difficult to tell apart the good from the bad until you’re already almost done the first season. To save you some hours of disappointing TV viewing, The Peak has made a list of shows whose portrayals of mental health range from problematic to nuanced to complex perfection.
13 Reasons Why (Season 1) 2/10
This show’s portrayal of mental health has been widely viewed as problematic. The narrative follows several high school students as they listen to 13 tapes made by their peer, Hannah Baker, explaining the reasons for her suicide. The show presents a strictly negative outcome of poor mental health in that the victim of bullying, abuse, and neglect has already taken her own life before the story even begins, portraying suicide as the only solution to overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts.
It also romanticizes mental illness and focuses solely on a victim’s desire for retribution against her assailants rather than promote a more positive message that stresses the importance of self-care and seeking help in overcoming mental health issues. The only redeeming message that the show somewhat conveys successfully is that anyone’s mental state can be affected by the way others treat them, and we should therefore seriously consider the possible negative repercussions of our actions before treating someone poorly. — MC
Parks and Recreation 7/10
You may know Chris Traeger, played by Rob Lowe, as a terminally sunny optimist with an obsessive love for exercise. You may also know him as the face of many a relatable depression meme — a mental illness his character actually began to struggle with.
While always seen with a smile on his face, government auditor Chris Traeger was diagnosed with depression later in the show. But his depression does not define Lowe’s character. He is enthusiastic about pursuing therapy, working out, and his career. Traeger’s character is a reminder that literally anyone, including your ridiculously peppy coworker, can deal with mental illness. —WY
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 7/10
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows a young woman as restarts to life in New York City — after being freed from a doomsday cult where she has been held captive for the last 13 years, of course. The comedy gives warm fuzzies all around and Kimmy’s everlasting optimism is infectious. While this quirky and bizarre show exudes a relatively humorous disposition, it also delves into Kimmy’s darker psyche as the seasons go on. As a survivor of sexual violence, Kimmy’s past trauma slowly catches up to her, showing up in physical and psychological symptoms.
While the show tends to oversimplify and play off Kimmy’s trauma in a lighthearted and humorous way, such as her admitting that there was “weird sex stuff in the bunker” during the pilot episode, the writers do a good job depicting Kimmy as someone trying to heal and move forward. Whether that’s through speaking with a therapist (played by show co-creator Tina Fey), confronting her captor, or reconciling with her mother, Kimmy is trying to start her new life. While not the most realistic portrayal of mental wellness and psychological trauma, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt brims with inspiring positivity and uplifting vitality. —KC
Jane the Virgin 8/10
Jane the Virgin is home to some of the best comedic and character writing The CW has seen since season 1 of Supernatural. While it is a comedy, the show hasn’t been afraid to deal with darker issues, like ADHD, anxiety, and even depression. It handles dark issues with a levity that is serious and respectful, but manages to still keep the tone light.
The titular character, Jane, deals with depression and openly sought out therapy after the death of her spouse. The show’s current season even deals with children having ADHD and PTSD! It’s a great day for dramatic telenovela-lovers and for mental health representation. Too bad Jane is on its last season. —WY
BoJack Horseman 8.5/10
What makes BoJack Horseman so fantastically poignant is its painfully realistic portrayal of mental illness, particularly depression. Back in the 90s, titular character BoJack starred in a popular family sitcom. Fast-forward to present day and he’s a depressed, washed-up, alcohol-and-drug-ridden has-been celebrity. The way this animated show deals with depression, anxiety, and loneliness is all too real.
All of the show’s main characters are flawed people (or anthropomorphic animals) going through tough shit. In its development of nuanced and multidimensional characters such as Diane Nguyen, Princess Carolyn, Todd Chavez, and especially BoJack, the show shines a grim, heartbreaking, and empathetic light on various forms of mental health struggles. A comedy at heart, BoJack Horseman intersperses hilarious bits with serious and stellar storytelling. —KC
Jessica Jones 9/10
The titular character, Jessica Jones, is initially the epitome of the hard-boiled detective trope. She’s a loner with a drinking problem and a foul-mouthed roughhouser, but damn is she a good detective. She is also diagnosed with PTSD.
What I admire about the show is that it doesn’t pull its punches when showing the loneliness, isolation, and hurt Jessica experiences. Her (adoptive) sister explicitly shows concern about her PTSD, while Jessica herself uses both healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms. The show ultimately tells a story of a complex and hurting superhero who is also deeply human. —WY
Adventure Time 9.5/10
Adventure Time drops you into a post-apocalyptic cartoon world saturated in absurdist humour, surreal scenery, and nihilistic plot lines. The show is tethered to reality through its stunningly relatable main characters and their experiences with PTSD and depression. Between fighting interdimensional monsters, reconnecting with estranged family members, and saving the universe, we watch leading boy Finn deal with the trauma he’s experienced.
Trauma is dealt over multiple seasons instead of the traditional singular episode on grief. It’s refreshing to see characters who deal with depression and PTSD without that being the entirety of their personality or character development. Yet, the Adventure Time still delivers the important message that your mental health is something you have to dedicate time to. —ZV
Steven Universe: 10/10
Created by former Adventure Time writer, Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe is a cartoon about a half-Gem half-human boy named Steven. Even though Steven Universe is a children’s show, it hasn’t been afraid to tackle serious issues. Topics like anxiety, PTSD, insecurity, depression, abandonment, identity crises, self-love, and even more are incorporated in the show.
And what’s better is that these topics are dealt with through the main characters, making them recurrent over the series. They’re not one-off specials. It reminds audiences that even though mental health and illness problems are scary, we have to remember to be unafraid and find strength in the power of love and empathy. —WY
With these shows in mind, The Peak wants to remind you that summertime sadness, AKA seasonal affective disorder, is a real thing. Be careful with the content you consume, especially with the ideas it may preach, and remember that no one is alone in their struggle — even half-Gem cartoon characters can have depression.