If you don’t suffer from a mental disorder or know someone who has, and if you did not study psychology in school, it’s likely that your understanding of this topic has largely come from the media—namely TV and movies. Unfortunately, most of those portrayals have historically been misleading or flat-out wrong.
For one thing, while the clinical term "mental disorder" can apply to a broad category that includes diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, there are distinct differences between neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, and other mental illness categories, which usually focus on a dysregulation of mood, thought and/or behavior. Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia can fall into this category.
Four years ago, when we launched a business called Autism Family Center and another sister organization with a more general focus, the Family Center Chicago, we became immersed in the world of mental health through the lives of our coworkers and the families we interacted with daily. At that time, just four years ago, the families we worked with often expressed frustration toward the portrayal of characters they saw on TV who suffered from various diagnoses. And so were we. The characters with mental disorders and mental illness on TV didn’t represent the experiences we saw around us.
Today, television paints a much different representation of those suffering from mental disorders (especially if we’re talking about autism). Fox’s new superhero drama The Gifted has been said to depict the main character Polaris’ struggle with bipolar disorder very directly. Meanwhile one of cable TV’s most beloved long-running shows, The Big Bang Theory, offers a comic take on autism. Streaming platforms have also joined the discussion, as with Netflix’s Atypical. And if you aren’t a mother, you’re probably not watching it, but one of the biggest media wins happened earlier this year when Sesame Street announced its first new Muppet in a decade: Julia, a 4-year-old with autism. Are all these characters perfect or wholly realistic? No. But the arrival of more complex TV depictions of the challenges of mental disorders has slowly been informing us for the better.
Historically, Mental Illness Equaled Delinquent
Ever-popular crime TV has had a particularly negative impact on our understanding of mental illness. In crime dramas, the perpetrators that investigators are looking for often have a diagnosis such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Don Diefenbach of the University of North Carolina–Asheville researches mental health issues in the media. He told U.S. News, “Characters who were identified through behavior or labeled as having a mental illness were ten times more likely than other TV characters to commit a violent crime—and between ten to twenty times more likely to commit a violent crime than someone with a mental illness would be in real life.”
For years, those with the diagnosis were fed up with the outlandish media portrayal of their symptoms. Characters were depicted as criminals who either needed to be sedated in a residential facility or left to roam free as delinquents. For those without experience in the field or without personal experience to relate to, it is easy to generalize mental illness by assuming that anyone suffering is likely to be a delinquent as well. This stigma means those who suffer from mental illness in real life won’t get the care, support from family members, and medial attention they need and deserve, just as any patient would.
Four years ago, a crime show such as Law and Order might have been the main exposure a person had to mental illness. There were few characters with mental illness on TV that we, as the audience, could root for. But times are changing.
Modern Approaches Have Proven More Complex—and Real
More and more, television shows have begun to highlight mental illness through experiences that are relatable without overdramatizing the symptoms or diminishing who the characters are outside of their diagnosis. Take, for instance, Ian Gallagher in Shameless. Ian has bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that manifests in very different ways for different people. With Gallagher, we watch his manic episodes and downswings that keep him from attending work, and we also watch diverse experiences that have nothing to do with his mental illness at all, such as his obstacles with sexuality or living in a very poor neighborhood of Chicago. Neither his character nor the writers ever pretend that his experience with bipolar disorder is the manifestation that every single person with this diagnosis would have.
Previously, when characters had neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, their diagnosis was often the primary characteristic and challenge that we as an audience experienced. For example, Max from Parenthood is an autistic child rather than a child with autism. Throughout the entire series, every obstacle we watch Max go through is related to the symptoms of autism that make a particular event challenging for him, such as trying to play team sports, socialize, and ultimately overcome bullying. Everything he deals with comes back only to autism. Max, as a character, was really only his autism.
Now, there are many characters on TV with mental disorders who also experience a plethora of life events that make up who they are. These portrayals let the audience watch a character develop multidimensionally.
As fall TV began premiering, one show especially caught our eye: ABC’s The Good Doctor. In Dr. Shaun Murphy, the creators and writers have made a well-rounded main character that the audience can fall in love with. Oh, and he has autism, too. The literacy of the title of The Good Doctor says it all. Murphy is a good person. His dream is to be an elite and top surgeon in order to help other people. But not everyone thinks a man like him, someone with a developmental disorder, can succeed. Good looking and successful, Murphy’s boss Neil tells him, “This is all you are ever going to do. You don’t belong here,” as Murphy provides suction. Throughout the episodes that have aired so far, though, Murphy continually proves that his symptoms of autism—far from handicapping him—actually help him to treat patients in a unique way. Murphy is more than autism. He is a well-rounded character with an interesting background. By creating a character with diverse experiences, the writers accomplished something that is unique and part of a new trend we are seeing in the television industry in general.
Randall Pearson from This Is Us is another example of a multidimensional character with mental illness. Pearson experiences extreme anxiety attacks—one of which lands him in the hospital. The anxiety is a piece of his character that the audience is exposed to over time. It is only one piece of who he is, though. Pearson is also an adopted black son in an all-white family. He is a father. He is a husband. He is an overachieving career professional—some of which is rooted in his anxiety and his inability to cope with failure. The audience watches Pearson’s experience with anxiety in the context of real life. It isn’t a show about his therapy, his recovery, or his experience with medication. It’s a show about a family with many different components to it—one of those being the complication of anxiety in contrast with everyday life.
It has been a pleasure to watch characters such as Ian Gallagher, Shaun Murphy, and Randall Pearson on television. These characters help those suffering from mild to severe mental disorders identify and relate to people on TV. Not only that, but their complex life experiences also give insight into who people with mental disorders are without disregarding the context that life throws at all of us.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article miscategorized Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It has been updated to reflect a correct definition of autism as a neurodevelopmental disorder.