Depression is a common mental illness. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, over 300 million people suffer from the disorder, worldwide. Depression may seem like someone being sad for a little but it’s much more complex than that. The illness can manifest itself in various ways. For some it could be in the form of becoming withdrawn or having a lack of energy, whilst another may show no visible signs and ultimately appear perfectly fine whilst breaking down inside. But even though depression may appear in a variety of ways within individuals, when you look to media we usually only see specific manifestations. Certain aspects of depression are over dramatized and even romanticized for the sake of a plot.
A good example of this pattern is You’re the Worst, a show about a toxic relationship between its protagonists: Jimmy and Gretchen. The show gets a lot of praise for how it shows clinical depression and, to the show’s credit, it deserves some of this acclaim. You’re the Worst makes it a point to depict depression as a chemical imbalance in the brain, that a person can’t just “snap out of.” However, it still gives viewers a harmful portrayal of depression with Gretchen. Gretchen, mainly, copes with her depression through drug abuse, alcohol abuse and meaningless sex. She often indulges in reckless behavior to make herself feel better. She is also awful to friends, verbally abuses her therapist, and at one point attacks everyone in her orbit simply because she’s feeling down. Now, people in real life use addiction to cope. They can also unpromptedly lash out at loved ones. These are some of the ways that symptoms of depression can present themselves. The problem with Gretchen’s portrayal of depression is that the show almost exclusively focuses on these aspects of her depression. These elements of Gretchen are hyperbolized to make story seem more interesting. For example, viewers mostly only see Gretchen’s depression come out when she is doing something destructive, like doing cocaine during an episode. The other components of her illness are not as present on the show, since they are not as gratifying to be watched. In doing this, the show treats her depression like a prop.
Another good example of this phenomenon can be seen on House. House is a show that follows the adventures of Gregory House, a brilliant but troubled diagnostician. House, like Gretchen, is horrible to the people around him. He is verbally abusive to his coworkers and degrades his best friend daily. He even talks down to his patients. However, the main trouble with House’s behaviour is that his destructive actions are often presented as results of his depression. Like Gretchen, he copes with his depression unhealthily, again with sex, drugs, and obsessive behaviour. Like Gretchen, his destructive coping methods are given the most attention, because it makes the show entertaining. House’s symptoms are not the issue with his portrayal of depression. The problem is that the show links his bad behavior to his depression. The series makes it appear the House’s actions are a result of his depression, thus saying that being an addict and cruel is inherent to depression. Because House’s toxic coping mechanism are entertaining, he simply just suffers for the audience’s amusement, for 8 seasons. House is not able to recover from his disorder because of this.
Another example of this trend is 13 Reasons Why. The series depicts the aftermath of a young girl’s — Hannah Baker’s — death by suicide. Hannah leaves behind tapes for everyone she believes is responsible for her depression and gives instruction for them to listen to each one. Hannah’s story is much different from House and Gretchen’s. She does not go through substance abuse or become inclined to debase other people. However, the story still plays up specific parts of her depression, to make itself more engaging. As Hannah explains what led her to suicide, we see how isolation and sadness have affected her relationship. This is the only way we see her depression expose itself, until she took her own life (which should not have been shown on camera.) Hannah’s depression is one dimensional, with only the flashy components being shown to the audience. This, like House and Gretchen, Hannah’s struggles are less about providing a realistic look into this illness or creating a positive and hopeful role model for depressed people, and more about exploiting existing prejudices and audiences’ morbidity for shock value.
The problem is, you can find too many examples of characters’ depression being used as a plot device. Now, it is important to say that depression should never be romanticized as there is no positive aspect of being depressed. That does not mean that we need to simply just watch people with depression suffer. What all three of these shows have in common is that they dramatize and romanticize depression to be “edgy”. Instead of having an honest conversation about mental illness, these characters are constantly in agony for drama. There is little effort given to illustrate their depression in ways that are not just entertaining of their recovery from their illness. Their depressions are just ways to create an interesting plot. These characters exist simply to be pain.
Bojack Horseman, a Netflix animated series, manages to show depression accurately in various ways. This show follows the adventures of Bojack, a washed up actor, trying to revive his dead career and find happiness. In the show, Bojack, as well as a sizeable portion of the main cast, suffer from depression; each of these characters also cope with their depression differently. While Bojack uses similar means as Gretchen and House to distract himself. He may sit around, doing nothing, or drink unless he passes out. Another character, Diane, focuses on her writing, making sure that her craft is as good as it can be. She will also invest herself in different social issues and problems that her friends might be having. A third character, Mr.Peanutbutter, pretends that everything is okay and nothing bothers him. He’ll just go through his day and pretend that everything is fine. Bojack Horseman illustrates people with depression as multi-layered individuals who are all different in their endurance of their illness. On the show, we are not just a plot device or a punchline for a joke. Our struggles are fleshed out and treated respectfully.
Scrubs is another series that depicts depression authentically and respectfully. Numerous characters in the show go through depression and its management. Doctor Cox finds himself so sad that he can’t function after four of his patients die. Carla deals with postpartum depression and copes by ignoring it, unhealthily waiting for it to go away. A minor character, Jill Tracy, who appears to be bubbly and happy, also shows signs of clinical depression. Though, Scrubs is a over-dramatized comedy, characters with depression in it are depicted with care. They all go through different forms of depression and react to them in different ways. Their troubles are shown realistically, in a manner that humanizes them.
Mr.Robot also portrays depression in a duteous manner. The show’s protagonist, Elliot, develops a substance addiction due to his depression, like Gretchen and House, and isolates himself. What makes his portrayal better than Gretchen and House’s is that it exists outside of his negative symptoms. His disorder is truly developed, and his coping mechanism, healthy and unhealthy, are key elements of the show’s narrative and not just used for shock value. The fans of the series get to see all of the means that Elliot uses to manage his multiple mental illnesses, to fully understand how they affect his life, and to seek help and strive for recovery. Every aspect of his mental illness is shown, from the moments where he convinces himself that his addiction is entirely manageable, to his struggles with medication and his therapy sessions. His depression isn’t just a prop, it’s integral to the story and it’s as fully fleshed as Elliot himself.
Although a theatrical depiction of depression might create some good drama, it is damaging to people actually living with the disorder. It shows our illness only matters when its able to be enjoyed by viewers. People living with depression already go through enough without seeing this narrative constantly. Our illness is not something to make a show more edgy. When depression is shown on television, it should not be exaggerated for the sake of drama. Instead, show all the various ways that depression can appear and the various methods people handle their symptoms. Plenty of people with depression handle it differently than most fictional characters.
Most importantly, please, actually treat us with respect and not just as a tool to boost your ratings.
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.