What Seeing Your Mental Illness On-Screen For The First Time Is Really Like, According To These 19 Women
I don't remember the first time I pulled out my hair. It's been a habit for so many years, done absent-mindedly while watching TV or typing on my laptop, that tracing it back to the beginning seems impossible. I do remember, though, the first time I realized that it wasn't normal. It was December 2011, the winter of my junior year of high school, and I was sitting in a movie theater watching Young Adult. As Charlize Theron's anxious, wound-up Mavis pulled out her hairs one by one, I found myself catching my breath. Although I didn't know to call it this at the time, I'd finally seen my mental illness portrayed on-screen, and the sense of recognition I felt left me shaken to the core.
My pulling has never been as bad as Mavis', or that of millions of real people who suffer from trichotillomania, the chronic condition of pulling out one's hair. I generally limit mine to my eyebrows, and although there have been times when I pick so much I have to use pencil to fill in the empty spots, it's typically not too noticeable by others.
But, like with many mental illnesses, it does negatively affect my life. And when combined with my compulsive nail biting, skin picking, and joint cracking, my pulling goes from harmless "bad habit" to serious problem. Yet while I deal with my behaviors with therapy and medication, I truly feel that seeing my condition depicted on-screen in Young Adult had the biggest impact on both my recognition of it and my desire to combat it.
In the movie, Theron's character was clearly mentally ill; it was obvious to anyone who saw the bald spot form on her head. But until that moment in 2011, I'd never thought of my own pulling as an illness, too, something that wasn't "quirky", but dangerous. Realizing that my problem was akin to Mavis' was painful, but necessary; it forced me to confront a part of myself I'd previously chosen to ignore.
And I'm not alone. For many people, seeing their mental illness accurately portrayed in a movie or TV show for the very first time can be a game-changing experience. It tells them that they're not alone in their struggles, or gives their "bad habit" a name, or shows that it's possible to have a mental illness and still be a creative, successful member of society. And, in some cases, it can literally save lives.
After all, far too few movies and television shows feature characters dealing with mental illness, despite the fact that it affects one in five American adults, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And some of the ones that do (UnREAL and Split come to mind with their portrayals of a non-diagnoses mentally ill person and a violent person with dissociative identity disorder) rely on ugly stereotypes and inaccurate information, harming viewers rather than helping them. As Stephen Hinshaw, a psychology professor at University of California–Berkeley, told U.S. News, oftentimes pop culture portrayals of mentally ill people show “The worst stereotypes," that of people who are "incompetent, dangerous, slovenly, undeserving." Said Hinshaw, The portrayals serve to distance 'them' from the rest of 'us.'”
The poor on-screen representation is a frustrating effect of the stigma around mental health — just take a 2009 study by Pescosolido in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, which found that 58 percent of Americans didn't want to work alongside people with mental illness. But thankfully, there are some films and shows that do get mental health right. And here's how they've made the lives of 19 women enormously better.
"The first time I saw mental health depicted in a show was Degrassi in fifth grade, around 2005," says Carson 23. "This girl on the show was struggling with depression and cutting herself, and it was the first time I realized that not everyone is happy and life isn’t always perfect, which is what other shows at the time were telling people. I’ve thought about that moment a lot over the years, honestly. The first time I was struggling with my mental health in my early teens, I immediately thought, 'Why is no one else like this? What is wrong with me?' But then I thought back to that moment from years earlier and forced myself to get out of the 'why me?' mindset and into a mindset of 'How can I help myself be better?' It's kind of crazy how one random episode of a TV show can affect you so much."
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
"The first movie I saw my mental illness portrayed on-screen was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on the book by Stephen Chbosky," says Megan, 23. "I was 17 and had been dealing with it on my own for a few years. I knew how I had been feeling wasn’t right, but I didn’t properly face it. Seeing that movie brought out a lot of emotions and a lot of crying because I saw a main character who got it. I saw me. It made me more open to talking about depression, since the main character does get help. It became the movie I watch when I need to remind myself things get better and that it’s OK to not feel OK all the time."
"The Perks Of Being A Wallflower's breakdown scene actually makes me so emotional because I have been there so many times," adds Katie, 25. "The first time I saw it was a gut-punch. I related so deeply to the emotions and dissociation portrayed by Charlie and through the cinematography. I had never seen anything that accurately captured how I felt in my deepest moments of depression or internal turmoil. The movie came out in 2012 when I was finally coming down from years of self harm, disordered eating, and depression. I was also finally confronting the sexual assault I experienced at 16 years old, which is similar to the trigger Charlie is experiencing in this scene. Because of the things he’s experienced in the past, Charlie is crumbling under the pressure of just existing. At one point after this scene, he says “There is so much pain and I don’t know how to not notice it.” I still think of that line often, and the scene itself still helps me feel understood in a way I often am not. It’s like a peek inside my brain on my worst days, which is oddly comforting."
"Seeing Emma on Glee struggle with what she did mental health-wise spoke to my seventh grade, completely anxiety ridden self so, so much," says Mollie, 18.
Iron Man 3
"I'm not sure if it was the first time I saw (one of) my illnesses in media, but it's the one that sticks out the most: when Tony Stark is having anxiety/panic attacks in Iron Man 3," says Gena, 25. "Iron Man has been my favorite superhero for a long time; I even started college as an engineering major so I could create awesome things like he did. So it was heartbreaking, but at the same time, kind of reassuring to see someone I looked up to going through the same thing I was, and still am. I just remember being in the movie theater, feeling like I was having deja vu, watching him check to see if he was dying at first, and having to pull his car and get out because he was having an attack and couldn't continue driving. It was a sad but comforting experience."
"Inside Out really wrecked me," says Erynne, 28. "I was at the peak of my mental health battle and was just coming out the other side. There were moments the movie depicted things I had tried to explain about depression but couldn’t find the words... It helped me articulate my anxiety and depression to my family and to my boyfriend at the time."
You're The Worst
"I was diagnosed with depression when I was seven or eight," says Rachel, 31. "The first time I saw it represented in a TV show in a way that felt real and familiar was a couple years ago, on Season 2 of You're the Worst. I know this is a Twitter cliche now, but I felt seen. It was also this great sense of relief. I know other people with depression. I know I'm not alone in it. But to see it on TV was very powerful. Until I saw such a relatable representation of what I go through and what I feel, I didn't realize that I'd never seen anything like it."
"Bojack Horseman is one of the first shows in which I've ever seen an accurate representation of adult depression," says Suzanne, 26. "This is patently ridiculous because it's a cartoon about a man who is also half horse. But it's well-written and obviously created by people who have dealt with mental illness, which is great. This particular scene between Bojack and his daughter, where she asks him if all the negative thoughts and depression of your formative years ever goes away, hit me. I often say that as a sufferer of depression and anxiety, I'm kind of an overgrown teen. I still feel everything in a big way. I still get raw and moody and messy, no matter how old I get, and I can so relate to the disappointment of knowing that my mental illness won't go away just because I'm an adult. When Bojack doesn't have an answer for his daughter initially, then lies and tells her it does go away, it wrecked me. I think if I had the opportunity to talk to my younger self, I'd probably do the same thing. Because in some small way, I still hope I'm just not grown up enough yet. That one day I'll turn 30 or 35 and suddenly be fine and rational — even though I know that isn't true. Anyway, this scene was just super raw and honest about what it's like to grow up with mental illness, to realize that it often is a lifetime sentence and can also be something you potentially pass down to your kids. And I really appreciated it, even though it was very difficult to watch."
"I am bipolar and I only ever saw bipolar people represented as crazy people who could just turn on a moment's notice," says Jenna, 29. "When I watched the first season on Homeland, even though Carrie can be pretty dramatic as a character, it was the first time I saw self-care, therapy, and medication as just part of someone's life rather than an all-consuming storyline. She went out and kicked ass, but she also had to take her meds and get the right amount of sleep. I found that very reassuring."
"The first time I saw bipolar disorder depicted accurately, tactfully and intelligently on screen was by Clare Danes as Carrie Matheson in Homeland," adds Kate, 30. "There was something in her mania and her melancholy that made me feel validated and seen. She was a nuanced, complex, capable character and I felt like her condition was written with the sort of tact and dexterity that can only come from speaking to people who actually know what it’s like to live with it. Delighted me that she was a fully sick CIA agent, too."
The West Wing
"It was The West Wing episode 'Noel', with Josh's PTSD," says Katie, 22. "I have major depression so, it's not exactly the same, but Josh's disassociation, self-harm, and generally wanting to die... oh, boy. It was the first time I'd seen those symptoms on screen and not in a character that was the villain. Entirely the opposite: they were placed on a character who was the hero and an intelligent, caring, successful White House staffer at that! Josh's interactions with Stanley also struck me as representative of my own relationship with therapists/counsellors too: argumentative and obstructive at first because it's hard to admit that these scary things are real, and then, after a discovery or a step towards recovery, triumphant and wanting to feel that again and again by never wanting to leave the therapy room. It was all condensed down to 45 minutes, but I still feel that it was successful in representing mental illness and therapy — or my experience anyway. Stanley's simple statement that "we get better" sticks with me til this day and has become a mantra that I hold close."
"The first time I ever saw mental illness in a movie/TV show that actually made an impact on me was Empire Records, in 1995," says Tammy, 35. "Deb attempted suicide but comes into work the next day (because it was Rex Manning Day) with a pair of wrapped wrists. Cry for help... teen angst... big feelings...all of the above? Growing up in a small town in Iowa and living in the heartland of 'swallow your feelings & dust yourself off', I had never seen or really heard about mental wellness topics. It was tremendously impactful seeing that as I was coming of age myself, that your internal feelings can actually manifest themselves into a physical act, that it's OK to talk about mental wellness topics that people will love and support you (even if it is your record store family), that it's OK to feel the way you do, that you're not alone if you're a cutter or having big feelings. It was fascinating and completely eye opening to me."
"The first time I remember seeing my mental illness on screen was when I saw Thirteen," recalls Cecilia, 28. "I was 13 or 14 at the time, and while it wasn’t exactly my experience, I was self-harming at the time and seeing that — especially the scene where her sleeve is pulled up to show her mom the scars — had an impact on me. I remember thinking more about the fact that this wasn’t 'normal' and maybe I needed help. It’d be a few months before I got the courage to tell my mom about what I was doing, and I started seeing a therapist and taking medication for depression and anxiety, which I’m still on today. How I feel about seeing this represented on screen is kind of mixed, to be honest. On some level, it did make me realize things weren’t exactly 'right' for me, but on another, I also secretly idolized the girls, and I got worse before I got better. The movie still brings up a lot of feelings for me. I haven’t watched it in years, and I’m kind of afraid to because it reminds me of how bad things once were. I prefer to keep things a little lighter nowadays."
"When I saw Secretary, it was the first time I'd seen a character engaged in cutting as self-harm," says anonymous. "The film and the character resonated with me. I knew I wasn't the only one, but it gave me hope to see someone overcome it as well."
"I’ve had anxiety since I was a kid (when I was young it manifested as hypochondria) but I didn’t get hit with major depression until I went to college," says anonymous, 24. "Around that time, the movie Young Adult came out, and I related to a lot of its themes as well as the protagonist (played by Charlize Theron). Part of what I loved about that movie is the way Theron's Mavis presents herself to the world as an obviously attractive, capable, accomplished woman. The audience learns that Mavis is deeply disturbed, though, and while she's more of a heightened portrayal of depression and anxiety, she demonstrated how someone can get stuck in their obsessive, dark, resentful thoughts. I personally believe that a lot of my mental health issues come from a failure to be present (meditation helps so much with this) and a tendency to focus on the past too much. Mavis perfectly portrays how obsessing over the past can ruin your present day life in Young Adult, plus it’s filled with magnificent dark humor."
One Day At A Time
"I have been in therapy on and off for a few years, but it wasn’t until late last summer that it became clear that I needed medication to manage my depression," says Sarah. "Starting antidepressants was an adjustment, and at times I felt ashamed I needed medicine for this. It’s also easy to convince yourself that you are feeling better, so you don’t need it. Penelope on One Day At A Time also uses antidepressants. We have different traumas that lead us to that point, but our feelings about medication are similar. In one episode, once things start turning around, Penelope stops taking her medicine without consulting anyone. She ends up unable to get out of bed, and I have definitely been there before. Her mom Lydia, who sometime has trouble dealing with the whole situation, encourages her to continue her treatment and reiterates that depression isn’t a weakness. I basically sobbed through the entire thing."
Sons Of Anarchy
"In the latter seasons one of the characters, Juice, gets into a deep depression and it really hit home," recalls Katie, 25. "Over the last few seasons he really struggles with it and how to talk to people about it, which I’ve struggled with too. There was one quote that really spoke to me and more or less put into words what I had been unable to for so long —'I don’t want to die, I’m just not sure how to live in all this.' I watched that scene four times in a row. I think about it all the time, even when I’m not in the deepest pits of my depression. To me, it was the first time I had seen depression portrayed as something more complex than just being sad. As someone who personally has never wanted to commit suicide, but still struggles deeply with depression, it spoke to the nuance and complexity of what a person can feel at their most vulnerable and how people have to figure out how to keep on going when it hits. I think it also helps dispel the idea that all depressed people want to die. We don’t always — we just need to figure out a new course of navigation, and this really helped me."
"I was 21, still in college, struggling with balancing what I wanted to do in the future vs. conflicting parental expectations," recalls Bailey, 23. "I started watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sometime after the first season had ended. In the pilot, we see the main character (played by Rachel Bloom) go from the happiest time in her life as a teenager at musical theater summer camp to a darkly contrasted New York apartment. We can see she’s very unhappy, and also taking some kind of medication, letting us know she is suffering from a clinical mental illness. Later on, we then see her have to rush out of her office and try to quell a panic attack. Just the simple act of showing a panic attack and a character taking medication was something that told me this show was going to take mental illness seriously. It was so important for me to see a character struggling with anxiety/depression, and not just as a passing mention. Showing a panic attack, to me, says, 'hey, this is real. This is a real problem people have, and we’re going to show that it shouldn’t be shrugged off or ignored, and you do have a problem, you’re not the only one.' Seeing that panic attack on-screen really meant a lot to me, and had me hooked on the show at only about five minutes into it."
"In 2014, I was diagnosed with depersonalization/derealization disorder (DPD), an intense psychological condition that's best characterized as detachment from one's self/body — think an out of body experience," says Alex, 28. "Shortly after my initial diagnosis, I watched the film Numb, the semi-autobiographical story of writer/director Harris Goldberg, himself a sufferer of DPD. I remember being glad to see an on-screen representation of the condition that drove me to the brink of insanity — it made me feel less alone — even though I was a little disappointed by the fact that the lead character's DPD was presented as a stumbling block to his romantic happiness rather than the deeply personal, surreal and disorienting experience the condition truly is."
Of course, movies and TV shows should not be the only ways that people learn about mental illness or begin to diagnose themselves; if you think you might be suffering from a condition, talk to your doctor.