Empire, Hollywood and Mental Health

5 Times Hollywood Got Mental Health and Mental Illness Right

Hollywood and mental health have never been good partners. The entertainment industry has a long history of portraying characters with mental illness in an insensitive manner. Studies indicate that characters in prime time television are depicted more often than not as having violent tendencies, more so than any other demographic group.

For the majority of Americans, perceptions about mental illness stem from mass media. And for the nearly eight million Americans who have been diagnosed with a mental health issue, these inaccurate and harmful portrayals of mental illness have lead to a culture of stigmatization.

In recent years, however, the mental health narrative has evolved. In 2015, this change became more apparent, especially in television and film. Here are five moments when Hollywood got mental health right in 2015.

1. YOU’RE THE WORST – An Honest Depiction of Depression

“You’re the Worst” showed one of the more interesting and accurate representations of what it’s like to live with depression, making an often misunderstood mental illness more comprehensible.

Now entering its third season, the series centers on Gretchen and Jimmy, two generally unlikable and self-destructive characters who wind up dating after a spontaneous hook-up in season one.

You're The Worst, Hollywood, Mental Illness
You’re The Worst, Hollywood and Mental Illness

The second season picks up after a house fire at Gretchen’s apartment. Gretchen and Jimmy are forced to move in together after only a few months of dating. Her presence in the new home brings out a darker side in her character. Though there were signs of depressive tendencies in the first season, in season two, we see Gretchen battling depression in a very real way.

As Pilot Viruet notes, “Gretchen stops caring about anything, because her brain won’t allow her to care. She can’t bring herself to get dressed, to enjoy socializing, to work, or do much of anything besides drink, snort Adderall, and plunge face-first into a pile of cocaine in desperate, failed attempts to feel something.”

Gretchen’s storyline reaches its peak mid season, when in a fit of drunken rage, she reveals exactly what she thinks of her closest friends — or rather, what her depression thinks of them. This scene is particularly impactful. Not only is Gretchen forced to tell Jimmy about her disorder, but it also depicts the ways in which depression can wreak havoc on your social life.  

In particular, this episode shows what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness. As Todd VanDerWerff eloquently noted, “The fact of the matter is that loving someone with a mental illness is to invite an unseen third into the relationship, who’s always just off to the side, a bad house guest you can’t get rid of.”

2. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – Re-Opens Dialogue About Carrie Fisher’s Bipolar Disorder

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” made headlines throughout 2015 as the seventh installment of the beloved franchise opened in December. But “Star Wars” made headlines for other reasons in 2015, when Carrie Fisher continued a decade long dialogue about her struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction.

Fisher’s rise to fame was not an easy one. After her debut performance in “Shampoo,” Fisher was cast as the iconic Princess Leia in “Star Wars: A New Hope.” By the time the second film in the franchise was underway, Fisher had begun experimenting with sleeping pills, which after the film wrapped, led to a four year long drug binge. After seeking help for her addiction, Fisher was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

While her frankness about her disorder is nothing new, her openness about the subject is admirable, as Hollywood has traditionally lacked empathy when celebrities speak out about their mental health issues. But Fisher’s honest testimonies offer fresh insight to an often misinterpreted disorder.

Carrie Fisher, Mental Health, Star Wars
Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

In her refreshing memoir, “Wishful Drinking,” Fisher addressed her frustrations with the lingering stigma in regard to mental illness. “One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder,” Fisher writes. “If you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.”

3. BOJACK HORSEMAN – Substance Abuse, Depression and Mental Illness

A television series depicting the life of a cartoon horse dealing with his status as a washed up 90’s sitcom star seems like the last place you’d see an honest depiction of mental illness. But oddly enough, Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” portrays depression and addictive tendencies with surprising ease.

The series is best known for its comedic gags, but season two brings a noticeable darkness to the otherwise colorful dialogue. BoJack repeatedly relies on drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms for his stunted career, and frequently detaches himself from his close relationships.

BoJack Horseman, Mental Illness, Hollywood
BoJack Horseman, Hollywood and Mental Illness

Margaret Lyons of Vulture highlights the exact reasons why BoJack Horseman works as a comedic take on depression. “We’re seeing BoJack’s mean streak in these moments, sure, but we’re also seeing how detached he is, that weird delay between saying something and realizing you’re saying it. That’s depression!”

She adds, “Alienation of self is a classic manifestation of depression! And not that clichéd, fake-ass TV depression of just laying on the couch for an afternoon. The real, life-altering, is-this-who-I-am kind. This is so rarely articulated or portrayed on TV in any way; somehow a cartoon horse dude is teaching us about ourselves, you guys.”

4. EMPIRE – A Step in the Right Direction for Mental Health Representation

Though certainly not perfect, Andre Lyon’s bipolar disorder diagnosis was a step in the right direction for mental health representation, especially for minority communities. As Elaine G. Flores notes, “[Bipolar disorder] often goes undiagnosed or untreated in the black community, so this is a big deal.”

Andre, the eldest of Lucious Lyon’s sons, is shown managing his condition and taking his medications, an extremely rare depiction for fictional characters with chronic mental illness. He’s also an extremely intelligent and successful businessman, which challenges the notion that people with mental disorders cannot be successful.

Actor Trai Byers is well aware of the impact his character might have on removing stigma from the disorder, especially in the Black community. In an interview with the Huffington Post, the actor notes:

“Being a black man comes with stigmas all its own, and trying to be the best person you can be, trying to be a man above and beyond your skin color and having to overcome the ideas that your skin color represents just so you can have a job, just so you can be competitive in business or whatever element or aspect of life is hard enough. So, anything that looks like it can tear you down, anything that looks like it’s a handicap, you want to dismiss, you want to throw it to your side.”

5. BROAD CITY – Hollywood Depression Isn’t Always a Principle Character Trait

“Broad City” as a series is most well known for its display of carefree, crass female friendship. But the season two finale of the series offers new insight into Ilana’s character. After a night of celebrating Ilana’s “throw-away” 23rd birthday, the show’s main characters discuss their hopes for the upcoming year. Ilana’s goals included the desire to finish a book, join Ancestry.com and gradually lower her dosage of antidepressants.

The line was easy to miss, as Ilana’s depression hasn’t been mentioned at any point previously in the series, but the line’s casual delivery makes it unique. Audiences are all too used to seeing depression depicted in violent extremes and as the defining trait of a character. And while this may be true for some people who experience mental illness, for others the symptoms are manageable with proper treatment.

Broad City, Hollywood, Mental Health
Broad City, Hollywood and Mental Illness

It’s especially important for viewers to see a character like Ilana – whose confidence and sense of self has attracted viewers – reveal that she takes antidepressants. By doing so, the show effectively shows that characters can have depression without it being a major, definitive plot point.

“As her life goes on, perhaps it can be a bit less about the experience of depression and more about the rest of life,” Eric Thurm writes, “For her, and hopefully for the rest of us, mental illness is, at worst, a recurring character in life, rather than the star.”


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