Mental Illness Representation in TV

Posted by Erin Fischer on

Recently mental illness has been having a moment in TV shows, people are finding that by introducing characters with a mental illness it can lead to conversations surrounding having a mental illness which helps reduce the stigma with it. But can it do more harm than good when it comes to reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness and can it lead to harmful stereotypes?

Many TV shows use mental illness to add drama not for the purpose of normalising mental illness and health. However, for those who have mental illnesses there is nothing dramatic about having a one. What so often happens for one or two episodes is we see character that is struggling then they either see a therapist for a one-off appointment or start taking some pills and they are cured. This is the same with suicide attempts as they will often include a suicide attempt in one episode and then a couple of episodes later that character is walking around fine and like nothing has happened. They don’t show the therapy, the trying of medications and how that mental illness isn’t something that is easily fixed and requires on going treatment.

In 2017 Netflix released the teen show 13 Reasons Why, based off the book of the same name. In it the main character Hannah kills herself and leaves a box of 13 tapes for her classmate Clay to find. Each tape detailing a reason why she chose to end her life and a person who she feels is responsible for contributing to the decision. It uses suicide as a revenge tool and doesn’t show accurately the portrayal of mental illness. It also showed a graphic suicide scene which was triggering for many viewers and was different to what happened in the book (this scene has since been removed). Netflix received backlash from not just consumers but mental health experts not only about the suicide scene but also the themes it contained with many believing that it shouldn’t have been released at all. Many mental health services along with high schools ended up releasing statements warning parents about the negative impacts it could have on their teens.                                                  

Studies in US showed that there was a rise in teen suicides after the release of the show, this can be linked to suicide contagion. Suicide contagion is when people are exposed to suicide or suicidal behaviours within one’s family, friends, peer group, or media and as a result suicidal behaviours increase. This is why the media won’t report when someone kills themselves in a public place and instead labels it as an incident and keeps details as vague as possible, as they don’t want there to be an increase in copycat suicides as a result.

Compare 13 Reasons Why to another show also targeted to teens that also showed suicide - Degrassi: The Next Generation. Showrunners Linda Schulyer and Stephen Stohn had wanted to show a suicide storyline for many years, but they knew they needed to wait until they found not only the right timing but the right actor. Degrassi has never been one to shy away from big issues (including various mental illnesses, drug use and even a school shooting) so it made sense for them to cover suicide at some point during the shows run. They made sure to do it in a way that didn’t glorify suicide and also showed the long term impacts it had on characters for many seasons afterwards. Over 34 episodes (in season 12) viewers got to build up a relationship with Campbell and see his struggles develop which led him to suicide. They made sure not to show the actual suicide scene instead showing a fellow student Eli (who had struggled with his mental health in the past) finding Campbell. In later seasons viewers also got to see Campbell’s girlfriend Maya struggle with the impacts his suicide had on her negatively and on her own mental health journey. While it did come as a shock to viewers it was handled in such a way that meant that teens felt they weren’t alone, and that suicide wasn’t a good thing (Schulyer and Stohn set out with the clear intention to not glorify suicide in anyway possibile). Viewers also got to see the long term impacts suicide can have on tight knit communities and people close to the victim of suicide. 

Suicide isn’t the only mental health topic not always shown well and can bring up controversy. A common theme in TV shows is that they have a token character with a mental illness which is often mentioned heavily while shown in a negative light, or it’s featured heavily for a few episodes and then not mentioned again. Over the years many TV shows have done this, and it has only shown to increase the negative stereotyping of those who have mental illnesses. TV shows rarely show people who can manage their mental illness or that there are times when having a mental illness can be a good thing, they only focus on what will bring drama. It's also rare to see a character without a diagnosable mental illness seeing a therapist on a casual basis because they need extra support. People are influenced by what they watch, and it shapes how they see the world. For example if a character who is suffering from bipolar disorder is shown having severe manic episodes or someone with anxiety is seen consistently having panic attacks people will assume that everyone who suffers from those mental illnesses acts those ways. So, while a show could think they are doing a good thing showing a character suffering from a mental illness if they don’t show both the good, bad and the long-term journey it’s more likely going to do more harm than good.

Thankfully TV shows are now featuring characters who can function despite their mental illness and show their ups and downs. If we look at Dr Miranda Bailey on Grey's Anatomy who has OCD. Over many seasons viewers have seen her reach breaking point because of it but slowly rebuild her life and while the OCD is still there (and mentioned) it doesn’t become part of her identity but just something she struggles with. This is a realistic portrayal of mental illness in this day and age and helps to reduce the stigma surrounding not just OCD but also mental illness in general.

Of course, some would argue that any TV show that gets people talking about mental illness regardless of how it’s shown is a good thing. It can be hard to know the full impact of this and only now is research really being done into this area, so it will be interesting to see what future research will find. Further research into 13 Reasons Why showed that people who stopped watching the series after the first season were at a higher risk of suicide compared to those who continued to watch the series as the later two series brought hope and showed that Hannah's death wasn't for nothing. Though the overall consensus was that the series had both harmful and helpful impacts on those who watched it and it was hard to work out who would benefit from watching it. 

When watching a TV series that shows mental illness, we need to be mindful of what we are seeing and understand that this is only one side of the story. Some TV shows will show a more accurate portrayal of mental illness than others and it’s up to us as viewers to educate ourselves on the issue and not let it impact how we see those who are struggling. Only we can decide whether it’s worth our time to watch these shows or if they may be triggering to us. As a viewer we have the ability to turn off what we are watching if we don’t agree with something and also educate and speak up to those around us if feel that something isn’t being portrayed correctly.

Are there any shows the show mental illness well or shows that you feel show mental illness in a negative light? Leave a comment below and lets get the conversation started! 

Or feel free to drop by, just say, ‘Hey Erin’ in strict confidence and you can be anonymous if you wish.


Degrassi Next Class Behind The Scenes TV Writers Reveal 

Degrassi Actress Slams 13 Reasons Why Suicide Scene 

Media and The Portrayal of Mental Illness Disorders 

How the Stigma of Mental Health Is Spread by Mass Media 

NIMH » Release of “13 Reasons Why” Associated with Increase in Youth Suicide Rates 

Netflix and Suicide: The Disturbing Example of “13 Reasons Why” 

Release of “13 Reasons Why” associated with increase in youth suicide rates 

How 13 Reasons Why sparked years of suicide-contagion research 

Investigating harmful and helpful effects of watching season 2 of 13 Reasons Why: Results of a two-wave U.S. panel survey -

What TV Gets Wrong About Mental Illness 

What does "suicide contagion" mean, and what can be done to prevent it?

Media portrayal of mental illness and its treatments: what effect does it have on people with mental illness?

Ways Mental Illness Is Commonly Misrepresented in the Media 

Mental Illness Stigma in the Media 


About Erin Fischer

Am the qualified mental health professional at Barty Single Origin. Write topical pieces with a focus on mental health. Always available on chat, Just say, 'Hey Erin'. Passionate about reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness and letting people know it's A-OK to be not OK. Mental health advocate, Anxiety survivor, baker, crafter, cat lover, blogger, and always down to get a coffee and chat.


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