BoJack Horseman on Netflix | ELLE UK

How TV Is Slowly Getting Mental Health Right

From a self-loathing alcoholic horse in BoJack Horseman to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend dealing with depression via lols, a new era of shows are expertly tackling mental health issues. ELLE speaks to the actors and TV writers making the storylines look realistic.

'I'm responsible for my own happiness?' BoJack exclaims in the first ever episode of BoJack Horseman. 'I can't even be responsible for my own breakfast!'

The show, which premiered on Netflix in 2014, offered up a sentiment all-too familiar with millennials. Now in its fourth series, the show refutes the idea that on-screen heroes should have it all figured out.

BoJack Horseman, the story of a washed-up actor with low self-worth and substance abuse issues, is one of many programs, both in the U.K. and the U.S., that grapple with depression, anxiety, addiction, suicide and their potential treatment as part of the narrative.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

It came with a slew of TV shows - including You're The Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Catastrophe, Lady Dynamite, Fleabag and Insecure - which instead of focusing the entire show around mental health, allow their character to explore issues as part of the plot, often giving a sense of normalisation to common disorders like depression.

These realistic depictions of mental illness can be deeply helpful to those who suffer at home.

'TV is compact and you can watch it privately or with just a friend and so there is some comfort – I think – in the anonymity of viewing,' says Maria Bamford, who created Lady Dynamite around her own experience with bipolar disorder.

The show, which returns for a second series on Netflix this Autumn, is a comedy, but with its moments of seriousness, particularly since Bamford has been very vocal about her recovery.

The actress sees TV as having similar power to a book. 'You don't have to go see the show 'Mental Illness: The Musical' and wait in line for a ticket in public if you have social anxiety,' she adds. 'I'm a reader and so books really convinced me to go for help. Kay Redfield Jamison, Marya Hornbacher and Patty Duke talking about their experiences and the process of finally going to a doctor or into the hospital made it more OK for me to do the same for myself.'

Crazy-Ex Girlfriend - a musical comedy that follows protagonist Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) as she deals with depression, anxiety and a lot of romantic issues - tackles mental health in a very specific way. When Bloom and showrunner/executive producer Aline Brosh McKenna co-created the programme, they want to ensure that the heavy issues didn't feel too heavy for viewers.

'We always thought a musical was a good way to get inside the head of a woman struggling with major challenges,' McKenna says. 'Comedy struck us as a great way to get at the often absurd nature of Rebecca's journey and to depict her coming of age, which includes her mental health challenges.'

She adds, 'My goal is for the show to be humane, kind and responsible when dealing with these issues. We love and feel for Rebecca. Rachel and I both find her plight very moving.'

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Comedy You're The Worst takes a different variation on this sense of empathy. One of the show's lead characters Gretchen, played by Aya Cash, suffers from severe depression, which she self-medicates with alcohol, drugs and general reckless behaviour.

As the show progresses, we see Gretchen face up to her depression and admit that she needs the help of a therapist and medication. The arc received a lot of acclaim from both viewers and critics, and Gretchen's struggles feel realistic in a way that is not often seen on TV.

'Gretchen was a good time party-girl in season one,' Cash says. 'To discover that she suffers from clinical depression both gives reason to her destructive behaviour and also acknowledgement that she is many things, not just 'A Depressed Person.''

In playing Gretchen, Cash has become almost a spokesperson for mental health. Fans around the world have found real solace in the storyline, which proves that fictional television isn't just here for entertainment.

'I think television's greatest gift to its audience is to say, 'You are not alone' and 'Have you thought of this?'' Cash notes. 'When done well television feels true, but shifts your perspective or shows you something new about that truth. I hope that by dealing with something like mental illness in a comedy we are able to give people representation and hope – but with a spoonful of belly laughs.'

You don't have to go see the show 'Mental Illness: The Musical' and wait in line for a ticket in public if you have social anxiety

Television can reveal new ways of looking at things, especially when it showcases something that's rarely seen onscreen.

HBO's Insecure, which depicts the lives of black women living in Los Angeles, has been able to do that with therapy. In the recent second series of the show, Molly, played by Yvonne Orji, tentatively agrees to go to therapy. She's not dealing with a mental illness, but instead wants to fix some of her self-destructive patterns and live a healthier life.

'In this season Molly is at therapy, but she's not at therapy,' Orji says. 'Her body's there, but she's not in it fully. And I think that's the normal response, especially for people of colour. Most people go to church or say 'Talk to a friend,' but their experiences aren't professional or based in things that might help you. So, for me personally, I was excited to explore mental health in this way. If I think of a [black] character going to therapy it's used as a comedic trope of sorts."

Orji has been contacted repeatedly by black therapists who watch the show because they want Molly's experience to feel realistic – which it does. The scenes of Molly going to therapy are short: it's part of her life the way it can inherently be part of anyone's life.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

'What TV has the ability to do is to educate and change and enlighten,' Orji explains. 'When you see things on television they sometimes becomes normalised. Seeing a black woman go to a black therapist makes you realise 'Oh, maybe black therapists exist' and then maybe you'll seek one out.'

Yet arguably the most controversial depiction of mental illness onscreen is Netflix's teen drama 13 Reasons Why. The show depicts the bullying and suicide of a high school-aged girl named Hannah, and included an accompanying feature 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, which aimed to give viewers a better understanding of suicidal feelings.

There has been some criticism that the show encouraged self-harm among teenage viewers, but licensed psychotherapist Stacy Kaiser sees the show as part of a trend of TV studios aiming to be more careful in their representations of mental health.

'Companies are trying harder for accuracy,' Kaiser notes. 'When you look at something like 13 Reasons Why they went out and consulted with a team of experts to try and make it accurate. A lot more younger people are watching these shows or people who don't know the facts about psychological issues, so they don't want to give wrong information. I think they're also hoping to educate the public in the process.'

Seeing a black woman go to a black therapist makes you realise 'Oh, maybe black therapists exist' and then maybe you'll seek one out

For Kaiser, television has the ability to provide solace to those who quietly deal with mental health issues and encourage viewers to ask for support.

'I think it's becoming less taboo,' she says. 'When it comes to things like depression and anxiety people tend to feel lonely and isolated, and they don't tend to talk to people about what's going on with them. So seeing it on television and reading it about those television shows in the media makes them feel less alone.'

You may not be as low as BoJack, but he's a reminder that we all find ourselves in dark places and need help finding the light again.

'Television may not be considered a high art,' begins Cash, 'but because a TV show enters your home and personal space it's actually incredibly important that it reflects our human experience. Depression impacts millions and millions of people. To not represent that somewhere on television would be to imply it's not a part of that human experience, and if by representing one person's experience we help someone feel less alone, less alien, then I think it's important to do that.'

More from ELLE UK: