How Mental Illness Has Been Depicted on TV

Series like 'You’re the Worst,' 'Orange Is the New Black' and more are giving viewers a first-hand look at what it’s like to live with a mental illness. (Spoilers ahead.)
Byron Cohen/FX
Aya Cash on 'You're the Worst'

In 2016, mental illnesses are still treated as taboo subjects in the media, but several TV shows are attempting to remove the stigma associated with depression, schizophrenia and other disorders by depicting them in a more realistic way.

Below, The Hollywood Reporter takes a look at some recent examples of how mental illness has been portrayed on the small screen.

Jessica Jones

The Netflix drama’s titular character (Krysten Ritter) suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, triggered by years of being raped by Kilgrave (David Tennant). As Ritter puts it, her TV counterpart “lives in a dark, cold place,” something she is able to access thanks to “grounded” writing about the superhero’s mental illness. Jessica ultimately kills Kilgrave and stops him from causing more harm, but even his neck-snapping death doesn’t curb her PTSD.

Homeland

Former CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) struggled to keep her bipolar disorder in check while also attempting to stop various terrorist attacks worldwide. In an interesting twist, Carrie did some of her best sleuthing when she was off her meds, a circumstance the complex character was well aware of. Danes, who said she’s received “positive feedback” from the bipolar community, took Carrie’s affliction very seriously, telling THR in 2012, “The more I learned about the condition, the more respect I had for people who struggle with it, and just in no way that I want to misrepresent them.”

You’re the Worst

The cult-favorite FXX comedy features two characters living with a mental illness. Gretchen Cutler’s (Aya Cash) clinical depression was depicted in detail as it worsened over the course of season two, as was Edgar’s (Desmin Borges) PTSD. Although some criticized the comedy for being too dark, creator Stephen Falk said he didn’t care about “bumming people out,” and instead felt compelled to give Gretchen a complex, interesting storyline.

“In terms of depression, I realize when you take something like that on, there is a certain amount of responsibility,” he told THR. “The goal is always to make sure we got it right and that it’s right for our character. If anything, I hope to shine more light onto it.”

Orange Is the New Black

Since OITNB takes place inside prison, where mental illness is often prevalent, multiple people in Litchfield suffer from a wide variety of disorders. Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren’s (Uzo Aduba) conditions are undiagnosed, but over the course of the Netflix drama she has experienced delusions, hallucinations, aggressive outbursts and difficulty understanding social cues.

Lolly Whitehill (Lori Petty) also is undiagnosed, but exhibits signs of paranoid schizophrenia and ended season four in the psych ward after revealing she played a part in a guard’s death. Noting that the show takes mental illness “so seriously,” Petty tells THR, “Lolly’s very intelligent and they both also have mental illness. We have very different mental illnesses, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be funny or smart just because you have paranoid schizophrenia.”

Empire

The eldest Lyon son, Andre, (Trai Byers) struggles with bipolar disorder just like his paternal grandmother. Instead of acknowledging the hereditary illness, Lucious (Terrence Howard) ignores it and hides it from outsiders, which Andre began to do, too. “I don't think that Andre wanted to have any signs of weakness; he didn't want to accept the bipolar disorder,” Byers told THR in 2015, adding, “Andre's not crazy, but he's imbalanced, and the imbalance restrains or releases him. He's a prisoner to the disorder and all that it does to him spiritually, mentally and physically.”

Mr. Robot

Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), is a young programmer/vigilante hacker who grapples with hallucinations, loneliness and a morphine addiction. He sees a therapist, presumably to treat a dissociative disorder, but an official diagnosis hasn’t been divulged.

The season one finale of the USA hit was criticized for showing another character committing suicide on live TV during National Suicide Prevention Month, but, as showrunner Sam Esmail explained to THR, "There was never a choice in the script phase or in the production phase that we made that was gratuitous or to be showy or anything like that. It was always something in service of our story and our characters.”

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