Health & Wellness

Mental health in television brings different yet limited portrayals

With more people home now than ever before, television viewing has become a constant. But how much of what we are watching on television accurately reflects the mental health of the general population?

Since the pandemic started, I’ve watched more television than usual. And I’m not alone: a study by United Talent Agency found that since the lockdown began, people have increased their television viewing on streaming services by 56%. As a young woman with bipolar disorder, I’ve been interested in how mental health is represented on screen.

GLAAD Media Institute’s 2018-2019 study found that of all series regulars on primetime broadcast programming, only 2.1% (18 characters) are people with disabilities – the highest percentage of any year so far. However, according to the 2017 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census, 13.3% of non-institutionalized Americans live with a disability.

As a new show on FX, “Dave” has been a hot topic in the recent discussion of mental health. Known by his rapper name, GaTa is Dave (Lil’ Dicky)’s hype man but after a manic episode followed by a depressive one in episode 5, he tells his friends he’s bipolar. Dave hugged him and said he loves him and the other characters’ responses were equally loving and supportive.

I sat on the couch watching this scene with my parents with tears in my eyes. I have bipolar too, and I’ve never seen it so accurately depicted or well-received on television before. “I have a chemical imbalance going on inside my brain,” GaTa said on “Dave.” “Sometimes I feel crazy, and sometimes I feel lazy,” he added.

When I talked to GaTa, who shares a name with his character, he told me that his onscreen experience is similar to his real-life experience with bipolar. GaTa was diagnosed eight or ten years ago, he said. When he first told people, he lost some friends who didn’t understand and it was hard because there was a stronger stigma around the disorder than there is now, but he said that his family and the people he grew up with have always been his main support system.

GaTa stands for Going against The average, and the way GaTa cares about mental health definitely does just that. He is open about taking medication to manage his mood swings and symptoms. Despite increased awareness about the illness, stigma about medicine is still strong.

“There's people that do a lot of different things and put a lot of bad things in their body,” he said about the stigma, mentioning other chemicals and weed. Finding the right medicine and doctor took patience. Finally, he found the right medication that slows him down “just enough to have the proper amount of energy left,” he said.

Of course, there are positives to some mental health disorders, I know that firsthand from having bipolar (so I can say it) and GaTa agrees with me.

“My favorite part about being bipolar is the passion and the excitement that people get to see out of you when you're expressing yourself,” he said.

In “Shameless,” on Showtime and streamed on Netflix, main character Ian has bipolar, too. USC senior Sophia Patterson thinks Ian also represents an accurate portrayal of the disorder.

“What I really appreciate about how they’ve characterized him is like he’s bipolar and he’s gay and he’s ROTC military, he’s very developed,” she said. She appreciates that because, she said, “In a lot of television, if a character does have a mental illness, that is their main thing.” She cited “90210”’s Erin Silver as an example of a character whose main personality trait was her bipolar disorder — granted, the show aired in the early 2000s, when conversation about mental illness was even more taboo.

Patterson wonders why there is still a lack of representation on television of other mental illnesses, like anxiety, depression, and OCD. As someone who has anxiety, Patterson questions why a disorder so normal and common in real life is so unseen on-screen. She believes it has to do with exaggeration and what creates interesting television.

“You choose bipolar and then you just super exaggerate mania,” she said.

Euphoria is another show with strong mental health plot points. Again, Patterson saw a good portrayal of mental health in Euphoria, particularly with Rue’s depression and the genuine way it plays out like when she was aimlessly watching episodes on episodes of Love Island. Patterson said she has felt that way before, too.

USC junior Sophia Ghadoushi also respects Euphoria for its breadth of mental health issues that it exposes in each episode and across all storylines with different characters. She said that there was something almost mundane about how each character is dealing with their mental health.

“Even though it is so dramatized, it is also so normal,” she said. “I feel like each person could relate as a viewer because there are so many characters and each character went through their own struggles.”

Ghadoushi’s first real introduction to mental health was through hearing about controversy surrounding “Thirteen Reasons Why” in the media. She wishes television shows showed a more diverse group of mental health struggles, and what they entail. It would help viewers identify, and normalize them.

As an actor and consultant on “Dave,” however, GaTa had a large say in the fifth episode’s portrayal of bipolar and wanted to make sure it was both realistic and positive. As a public figure, he said, his desire is to inspire.

“I just want to let people know that it's OK to have this mental disorder or have any type of mental disorder as long as you want to seek help,” GaTa added.

Reaching out for help is the bravest and strongest thing you can do and at the bottom of this page is a list of resources to help you get started. Opening up to family members or friends is a good first step, too, if possible.

Counseling and Mental Health - (213) 740-9355 – 24/7 on call
Free and confidential mental health treatment for students, including short-term psychotherapy, group counseling, stress fitness workshops, and crisis intervention.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1 (800) 273-8255 – 24/7 on call
Free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Talkspace Text Therapy App
Anxiety Crisis Textline
Text a Crisis Counselor at 741471
NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness
Information on different mental illnesses for if you think you or a loved one may be suffering