It would be absurd to say that the TV shows we watch don’t influence how we perceive real world issues. TV shows have the freedom to tackle complicated issues each week in less than 30 minutes. These programs can leave us with a new perspective, either good or bad, on the issue. Mental health is an issue that is repeatedly taken on by several different TV shows.
While I believe it is important to represent all types of people in the media, I also believe that there is a right and wrong way for them to be represented. For those living with any type of mental illness, it can be damaging to constantly see a part of who they are represented so negatively. With an average of about 42.5 million American adults suffering each year from some type of mental illness, it is time to take a hard look at the effect the TV shows we watch can have on our attitudes towards mental illness.
A show that features a character with mental illness usually takes one of two routes. They can be an advocate for those with the mental illness, or they can use the character to get a cheap laugh. When a character’s mental illness is used for a cheap laugh it becomes demeaning and distasteful quite quickly. I can already hear the opposition telling me that it is a joke, or that I shouldn’t take it so seriously because it is meant to be funny. To that I say mental illness is a serious issue and should be treated as such — even when it comes to comedy.
I have no shame in admitting I love to watch “Family Guy,” and I admire Seth MacFarlane’s boldness when it comes to the subject matter on his show, even though, “Family Guy” isn’t exactly an advocate of sensitivity when it comes to mental illness. Now I know that the show is supposed to be funny, I get that, but I also think there is a line between funny and offensive. Every episode of “Family Guy” dances on this line. I believe that using a person’s mental illness to get a cheap laugh is a poor example of comedy. I’m not picking specifically on “Family Guy” because there are many shows on TV that are guilty of the same thing.
I believe the media is capable of giving a voice to those suffering with mental illness. An example that immediately pops into my mind is Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren from the popular Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black.” “Orange” depicts the lives of women during their time in a correctional facility. Warren shows classic symptoms of borderline personality disorder, including frequent displays of anger and difficultly maintaining relationships with others. She is treated differently by her fellow inmates and is often excluded from group activities. It doesn’t take an expert to deduce that Warren is being excluded because of her mental health issues.
Despite being isolated by some of her fellow inmates, “Orange” gives Warren a voice and a chance to have her story told. “Orange” is no stranger to difficult issues and also features several different characters with mental illnesses. I think “Orange” does a good job of keeping Warren realistic, and doesn’t wrongly demonize her. This isn’t to say that the show doesn’t highlight the difficulties Warren has as a result of her mental illness. “Orange” keeps Warren’s violent tendencies realistic, which allows viewers to get a glimpse of what she is dealing with without having a bitter taste left in their mouth after the scene.
I believe that TV shows should be using their time slots wisely when it comes to addressing serious issues. So the next time you sit down to watch TV, be aware that what you’re watching can greatly effect your opinion on bigger issues. If you, or know someone, is suffering from a mental illness, remember to take with a grain of salt the depictions of mental illness that are seen on TV. Don’t allow your opinion to be swayed by those who are only out for a cheap laugh.