It's so important for TV to take mental health issues seriously.
When television reinforces stereotypes about mentally ill people being violent, it increases stigma and discourages viewers who need it from getting help.
But when TV gets it right, it really gets it right!
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Stories about mental health issues entertain, educate, and help viewers feel less alone.
Check out our top 19 mental health storylines and let us know in the comments if we missed your favorite!
And don't forget you can watch TV online right here on TV Fanatic if you need a refresher.
Kathleen's Bipolar Disorder - Law & Order: SVU
Law & Order: SVU's track record with mental health issues is strong, but nothing beats Law & Order: SVU Season 10 Episode 3 "Swing". In an intense hour of television, Stabler learned his daughter might be bipolar and struggled to get her to accept it, while she chose going to jail over getting help. As a bonus, veteran actress Ellen Burstyn played Stabler's mother, who was also bipolar and whose relationship with STabler was estranged as a result. Powerful stuff!
Rome's Depression - A Million Little Things
ABC's A Million Little Things' depiction of suicidal depression is to be applauded. Rome's decision not to kill himself when he learned that Jon had allows the show to explore suicide from two different angles. Rome's story is especially realistic and compelling because of his love-hate relationship with anti-depressants and his decision to go off them for a while and his difficulties explaining his condition to his father, who doesn't see why Rome can't just ignore his depressed feelings and go on with life anyway.
Bloom's Burnout and Adderall Addiction - New Amsterdam
New Amsterdam's Lauren Bloom suffers from Adderall addiction, but the show takes care not to slip into stereotypes and to approach the issue from several angles. Bloom seems to be a workaholic who is burning out and has a legitimate need for Adderall because she has ADHD (a disorder that too many shows don't take seriously, if it's mentioned at all.) Her difficulties coping and even with admitting she has a problem and her anger with Sharpe for not trusting her due to her problem make for compelling drama.
Shaun's Autism - The Good Doctor
Autism is too often depicted only in its most severe form, if depicted at all, but The Good Doctor shows how far we have come since the days of St. Elsewhere! Freddie Highmore's Shaun Murphy is a realistic character on the higher-functioning end of the spectrum. Shaun's idiosyncrasies and difficulties with communication and perspective-taking not only drive his friends nuts, but leave both him and hospital administrators wondering at times whether he's really equipped to be a doctor.
Caroline's Alzheimers' Disease - Days of Our Lives
Days of Our Lives often plays fast and loose with reality, but Caroline's Alzheimer's disease was a different story. Caroline gradually began forgetting things and getting lost when she shouldn't have. Her story ended off-screen with the real-life death of Peggy McCay, but what we did get to see was beautiful and heartbreaking.
Max's Aspergers Syndrome - Parenthood
Parenthood was one of the first shows to include a family member with Autism. The showrunners didn't always get it right -- Christina's response to Max's difficulty with sexual boundaries was disturbing, for example -- and the stories sometimes focused more on how hard it was for Max's family to deal with him than on Max himself, but this groundbreaking show did offer emotional, realistic stories on a regular basis.
Daniel's Schizophrenia - Perception
Perception was a unique show in that its lead suffered from schizophrenia on top of being a respected neuroscientist who often worked with the FBI. In some ways this show reinforced the trope of mental illness as a superpower, but it also demonstrated how difficult ordinary things were for Daniel to do, especially when he couldn't separate fantasy from reality when his schizophrenia was acting up. In addition, Perception departed from TV tradition by showing a person with schizophrenia in a positive light instead of suggesting people who suffer from this disorder are violent or scary.
Dr. Kevin Casey's OCD - Scrubs
Michael J. Fox guest starred on the medical comedy Scrubs as Kevin Casey, a doctor with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. At first he drove JD and the other residents up the wall with his need for perfection, but when JD discovered that Casey was literally unable to stop washing his hands, he saw Casey in a different light -- and so did we.
Adrian Monk's OCD - Monk
Adrian Monk was a detective who suffered from such severe OCD that he couldn't live independently and couldn't function at a regular job, but was able to work as a consultant for the police department that had once employed him. His devastation over wife Trudy's death made his disorder worse and if that wasn't heartbreaking enough, sometimes he struggled with social skills and other things that most people take for granted. For example, who can forget the time he went to the circus and was confused as to why his aide Sharona was hurt that he laughed at her fear of elephants even though she put up with all of his OCD-related fears?
Bailey's Struggle with OCD - Grey's Anatomy
Grey's Anatomy treated MIranda Bailey's OCD with respect and realism that is not often shown on television when it comes to mental health issues. Bailey's OCD was revealed gradually over the course of a few episodes in Season 10, and then on Grey's Anatomy Season 14 Episode 11, she had a hard time getting treatment when she had a heart attack because her doctor believed she was just having an OCD-related panic attack. This story highlighted the difficulties that people with disabilities and women -- especially women of color -- often have when seeking health care.
Sonny's Bipolar Disorder - General Hospital
General Hospital's Sonny Corinthos is a mob boss whose struggle with bipolar disorder is realistic and moving, thanks in part to the input of actor Maurice Benard, who has the illness in real life and uses his role on General Hospital to help spread awareness.
Penelope's Anxiety Disorder - One Day at A Time
Netflix's One Day at a Time reboot isn't scared to tackle big issues, and Penelope's mental health is one of them. Penelope has struggled to accept her anxiety issues throughout the series, and on One Day at a Time Season 3 Episode 9, she has a breakdown as she tries to study for her nurse practitioner exam, deal with her kids' issues, and face her fears of moving too fast with her boyfriend all at once. The episode moves deftly back and forth between her mental state and external reality, using color differences to help viewers follow what's going on and allowing us a peek inside her head.
Randall's Breakdown - This is Us
This is Us often earns praise for its treatment of mental health issues, but a standout among standouts is This is Us Season 1 Episode 15, in which Randall's panic disorder leads him to have a near breakdown and Kevin finds him in his office, unable to function because of all the stress in his life. Not only does Randall have a realistic anxiety issue in the present, but flashbacks show that he has always struggled with anxiety, demonstrating that mental health issues are often longstanding and don't usually come out of the blue.
Ruth's Dementia - Castle Rock
The best horror stories have a basis in reality, scaring us because they could actually happen. Castle Rock Season 1 Episode 7 is a stellar example, featuring Ruth Deaver taking a trip through her mind as she succumbs more and more to dementia. Throughout the story, Ruth is lost and disoriented, not sure where in time or space she is, as she explores memories of the past and tries to make sense of the present. Viewers are right there with her throughout her journey, making us feel exactly what it's like to live with a mind and memory that are failing.
Nic's Panic Disorder - The Resident
On The Resident Season 1 Episode 9, Nic helped a patient with a panic attack, but viewers didn't know then that she suffers from them herself. That reveal came on The Resident Season 2 Episode 6, where Nic's fears for Jessie's newfound sobriety led to Nic having a panic attack of her own at a Halloween party. This realistic story did a nice job of showing how mental health issues can intersect and how worrying about others can trigger an anxiety attack for those who suffer from panic disorders.
Andre's Severe Bipolar Disorder - Empire
Andre has suffered from severe bipolar disorder since the beginning of Empire, though it isn't always in the forefront of the episode. This is realistic, since most people with bipolar disorder have good days and bad days, plus it makes Trai Byers' heartwrenching performances even more powerful when Andre does break down, as he did at the end of Empire Season 4 Episode 8.
Tara's Dissociative Identity Disorder - The United States of Tara
It's rare that television does Dissociative Identity Disorder justice. This disorder is often sensationalized or used for dramatic effect. But the United States of Tara used DID as its premise and got the facts mainly right. Throughout the series, Tara struggled to face the childhood trauma that led to the development of this disorder as well as deal with the way her illness affected her family.
Ray's PTSD - Ray Donovan
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another disorder that is often misunderstood by TV writers. This disorder has to do with the inability to process a violent, traumatic experience, and while soldiers returning from war often experience it, they are not the only ones. Kudos to Ray Donovan for addressing a different cause of PTSD and depicting it realistically. Ray's alcoholism makes this even more realistic, as many PTSD sufferers turn to alcohol and drugs in an attempt to manage their symptoms.
Dr. Melfi's Alcoholism - The Sopranos
Dr. Melfi's relationship with Tony Soprano comes to be because of Tony's panic attacks, but she herself suffers from alcoholism. Melfi may well also have suffered from PTSD, considering the violence her relationship with Tony brings her and the violent rape she endures on The Sorpanos Season 3 Episode 4. Either way, her struggle with alcohol demonstrates that mental health treatment providers aren't immune from having issues themselves.