Janne Schellingen

22 Jul 2020
Film & TV

5 Series and Movies That Actually Portray Mental Illness Well

Mental illness is still not portrayed enough in the TV industry. When it is, it’s often in a romanticized manner. Movies or series like ‘Skins’ and ‘13 Reasons Why’ often romanticize mental illness, which affects viewers negatively. In this article, we explain what romanticizing is and which series/movies do portray mental illness well.

Before we get to the list, we want to explain a bit more about romanticizing mental illness.

Mental Illness Isn’t an Aesthetic

By romanticizing something we typically mean that mental illness is made more aesthetically or more appealing than it is. Consequences or downsides of illness are often ignored, which may give the impression that having a mental disorder is interesting to have. Take a look at the last episode of season one of 13 Reasons Why, for example, Hannah Baker, the main character, killed herself on screen. The scene made it seem very peaceful like it didn’t hurt at all. But that’s not how it is in real life. Even though the scene has now been removed from the show, it had a big impact on its viewers.

A wrong portrayal of mental illness can affect viewers negatively. Mostly viewers that are already struggling with their mental health or have a predisposition towards it. They’ll try to be like the people in the shows. A prime example is Effy Stonem from Skins.

Effy Stonem in 'Skins': Company Pictures

Skins followed a group of British teenagers and dealt with subjects like depression, eating disorders, drug abuse, and death. Girls from all around the world wanted to be like Effy: they changed their wardrobe to all black, wore smeared eyeliner, and started acting as destructively as Effy did. They started to harm themselves because they thought that was what they were supposed to do. The British show never let their viewers know that this behavior was destructive, as Effy didn’t face any consequences, not until the later seasons. Different boys fell for her and wanted to fix her, which seemed romantic. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

Our Favorites

Because there are still lots of series and movies out there that handle this subject the wrong way, we wanted to make things easier for you. We sum up movies and shows that, according to us, depict mental illness well.

Keep in mind that every movie affects every viewer differently. Think about your own mental health when watching any of these because they might be triggering.

1. Horse Girl

While the title might indicate differently, Horse Girl actually isn’t a quirky film about a girl obsessed with horses. The American movie was released by Netflix on February 7, 2020. It follows Sarah (Alison Brie), an awkward, introverted young woman who works at a crafts store. As the movie continues, it becomes clear that something is wrong with Sarah. She wakes up in the middle of the night in random places, has dreams where she sees people she hasn’t met yet, and, after a while, she starts to believe that she’s regularly abducted by aliens.

Alison Brie wrote the movie together with American director Jeff Baena. It’s based on Brie’s real-life family history with paranoid schizophrenia and depression. The movie itself is quite abstract and surreal, but it does tell the story of a girl struggling with her mental health.

Important note: The movie can be anxiety-inducing, so if you have a history of mental illness or anxiety, take this into account. Watch it with someone you trust and who you can talk to.

2. Please Like Me

The Australian TV series Please Like Me from 2013 is written by Josh Thomas. Thomas also plays the lead actor in the series. It follows 20-year-old Josh whose life drastically changes when his girlfriend breaks up with him because she thinks he’s gay. Josh’s mother attempted suicide and failed, which results in Josh moving back in with her to look out for her. The series touches different subjects like self-discovery, depression, and suicide.

The show is an emotional rollercoaster that makes you laugh and cry. Please Like Me explores realistic issues with humorous tones and is definitely a must-watch.

3. One Day at a Time

One Day at a Time is an American sitcom based on Norman Lear’s 1975-1984 sitcom of the same title. The show revolves around a Cuban-American family living in Echo Park, a Los Angeles neighborhood. The focus is on Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), a United States Army Nurse Corps veteran, and her family. Alvarez struggles with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and finding her way now that she’s back from the Army.

The show does a good job of portraying mental illness. Apart from that, One Day at a Time also discusses immigration, racism, sexism, and many more topics.

4. Bojack Horseman

The American adult animated series Bojack Horseman (2014-2020) has received critical acclaim for their portrayal of mental illness. The show follows Bojack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett).

Horseman was a famous TV star in the ’90s, but twenty years later, he’s a depressed alcoholic. We follow him as he tries to get his life back on the rails. Even though the series is animated and uses characters that don’t exist, the series depicts depression, addiction, and trauma very realistically.

5. Spinning Out

Spinning Out (2020) follows 21-year-old Kat Baker (Kaya Scodelario), who is a talented figure skater from Sun Valley, Idaho. After making a disastrous fall in 2017, she’s too terrified to jump. It’s later on revealed that Kat struggles with bipolar disorder. The series does a great job of portraying the illness. Spinning Out shows the manic episodes and how that affects the people around her, but it also displays the downsides of taking medication. The medication (lithium) makes Kat less energetic and affects her ice-skating. Taking the medication is a big decision that Kat has to make.

The series displays all the sides of dealing with bipolar disorder, which is very interesting and very important to see. It captivates you until the very end. A must-watch.

If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or are in need of a conversation, you can reach out to a suicide hotline in your country via www.suicidestop.com.

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