10 of the Best Mental Health Portrayals on TV
As mental health awareness continues to grow, more and more shows have used mental illness in their storytelling. Here are some of the best portrayals on TV.
As the real-world awareness about mental health continues to grow, scripted TV has had no choice but to join in the conversation. Several series have introduced characters who navigate their mental illnesses alongside the ups and downs of everyday life.
Although many new shows have developed characters with disorders such as postpartum depression or anxiety, not all have accurately portrayed these conditions. However, there are some series that have succeeded in beginning the necessary conversations surrounding illnesses like depression, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re highlighting the TV shows and characters that have represented mental illness as accurately as possible. Here are 10 of the best mental health portrayals on TV.
10. Rue Bennett from ‘Euphoria’
As the main character in Euphoria, Rue Bennett (Zendaya) is the first of her East Highland High School classmates to tell her story. During the HBO drama’s pilot, Rue reveals she has several mental health diagnoses: ADHD, anxiety, depression, and what her doctor believes is bipolar disorder. Fans also learn that she uses drugs to cope with these mental illnesses.
In Season 1, Episode 7, Rue slowly learns she may have bipolar disorder, as her doctor predicted in the pilot. During the episode, she talks incessantly and engages in risky behavior such as smoking. In another scene, though, she’s sitting in her room watching Love Island UK for hours and refuses to go to the bathroom.
After nearly developing a kidney infection, Rue’s mom eventually finds her in pain on the bathroom floor. The scene accurately shows how some people living with bipolar disorder behave in manic “up” phases and depressive “down” stages, per the MayoClinic.
Randall Pearson from ‘This Is Us’
Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown) often goes out of his way to help his family on This Is Us. But, in Season 1 of the NBC hit, he struggled to get the necessary assistance to better cope with his anxiety. According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is an “emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
Although he’s reluctant to go at first, Randall eventually sees a therapist after having a panic attack in Season 1. Randall’s decision to seek help is an excellent example of Black men taking time to prioritize their mental health and accepting their anxiety.
Rebecca Bunch from ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend opens with Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) moving across the country to reunite with her ex. While she uses humor and music to deal with her heartbreak, viewers soon learn the reasons behind some of Rebecca’s decisions. After she attempts suicide, her therapist, Dr. Noelle Akopian (Michael Hyatt), diagnoses her with borderline personality disorder.
According to Borderline in the Act, BPD often gets misdiagnosed, and few movies and TV shows have discussed it.
Nathan Campbell from ‘Insecure’
Even though Nathan (Kendrick Sampson) initially joined Season 3 of Insecure as Issa Rae’s new love interest, fans learned more of his backstory in the show’s later seasons. After “ghosting” Issa in Season 3, they decide to cool off their romance and stay friends.
Following multiple episodes of avoiding the “ghosting” ordeal, Nathan eventually confides to Issa that he discovered he has bipolar disorder in Season 4. He then calmly explains his feelings regarding the diagnosis, and Issa gives him her full support. The entire conversation is an excellent portrayal of how to handle the news of a loved one’s mental illness diagnosis.
Sonya Cross from ‘The Bridge’
Despite the U.S. version of The Bridge getting canceled after two seasons, Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) showed one of the most accurate portrayals of Asperger's syndrome, which the MayoClinic defines as “a condition on the autism spectrum, with generally higher functioning.” The detective displays her mental illness at work and in her personal life. Although her bold comments and transparency make her shine at her job, it affects her relationships with her co-workers.
Sonya also stands out from other TV portrayals of Asperger's in that she never discloses her diagnosis, something producers Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid intentionally took from the original series.
“It’s not how people function,” Stiehm told The Slate in 2013. “You meet someone, you don’t say, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with you? What’s your diagnosis?’ You deal with them as they are. You get to know them, and maybe a few months later, you might find out.”
Owen Hunt from ‘Grey’s Anatomy’
On Grey’s Anatomy Season 5, Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd) came to Seattle Grace/Grey Sloan after serving several years in the military. As he starts falling in love with Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), fans learn more of his backstory. Owen confides in Cristina that his final tour resulted in a rocket-propelled grenade killing his entire unit other than himself. The incident caused Owen to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Psychiatry.org defines PTSD as a “psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape, or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury.”
During one episode, fans see Owen’s PTSD physically affect his relationship with Cristina when he accidentally strangles her after having a nightmare. Although Cristina forgives him, Owen takes the event as a sign to see a therapist. Unlike in some shows, the trauma surgeon continues discussing his diagnosis in future seasons. Owen’s character provides a glimpse into the PTSD symptoms that many military veterans face in real life.
Rainbow “Bow” Johnson from ‘Black-Ish’
Rainbow “Bow” Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) deals with postpartum depression after the birth of her baby, DeVante, in Black-ish. According to Medline Plus, postpartum depression is “moderate to severe depression in a woman after she has given birth.” They also explain that the disorder “may occur soon after delivery or up to a year later. Most of the time, it occurs within the first three months after delivery.”
Throughout the season following DeVante’s birth, Bow struggles with her negative feelings about herself and her new baby. Following the October 2017 episode “Mother Nature,” fans praised the portrayal of postpartum depression in Black women. The episode also shows how family members can support those navigating mental illness, as Bow’s kids baby-proofed the Johnson’s house to bring their mom ease.
Don Draper from ‘Mad Men’
In the 1960s-set office drama Mad Men, Don Draper (John Hamm) seemingly has his entire life figured out. But, as the show continued on, Hofstra University psychology professor Joseph Scardapane theorized that Don showed signs of narcissistic personality disorder. According to HelpGuide.org, the mental illness can present as “a pattern of self-centered, arrogant thinking and behavior, a lack of empathy and consideration for other people, and an excessive need for admiration.”
One of the earlier signs of Don being a narcissist is his ability to compartmentalize who he really is and the identity he created after years of childhood trauma. Don also struggles to connect with his wife and family, as his career and notoriety are of utmost importance, something many people with the disorder must navigate.
Shaun Murphy from ‘The Good Doctor’
On The Good Doctor, Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore) accurately portrays what it’s like to have autism in a professional setting. According to ABC, Shaun also has savant syndrome, which SSM Health defines as “a rare condition in which persons with various developmental disorders, including autistic disorder, have an amazing ability and talent.”
Shaun navigates both conditions in his residency and his personal life. In an interview with Digital Spy, Freddie shared the importance of researching his character’s diagnoses.
"I'm constantly learning, he shared. "Aside from continual research, or working with the consultant that we have, I'm also talking to people who feel that they have a personal connection to the show through autism, and are pleased or thankful that the show is seeking to raise awareness in that way."
Lexi from ‘Modern Love’
During the third episode of Amazon’s anthology series Modern Love, Lexi (Anne Hathaway) shares her life as a single woman with a high-profile job as a New York attorney. As the episode unfolds, viewers learn that Lexi has hidden her bipolar diagnosis from her peers at work. She also shows how her mental illness affects her dating life, as she becomes too depressed to attend a date with a potential suitor.
According to Glamour, the episode is based on Terri Cheney’s Modern Love column in The New York Times, Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am, and her memoir, Manic. The author praised Anne for her portrayal of mania, which the Cleveland Clinic explains is a condition marked by “period[s] of abnormally elevated, extreme changes in your mood or emotions, energy level or activity level.”
“Anne conveyed the charisma of mania beautifully,” Terri said of the performance. “Mania is often charming, but depression is another story. It’s sometimes an off-putting experience and very hard to describe or portray. Anne captured it in a way that not only showed its anguish but also moved the viewer to empathy.”